City-owned Pool Idea Swims Against the Current

By Tom Brown

Photo by Tom Brown

Alot of folks would like to see a new recreation and aquatic center in Montpelier, but far fewer are willing to see city taxpayers bear the full cost.

That is one of the key takeaways from a recent survey that asked a sampling of residents to assess the city’s recreation facilities and programs, both existing and aspirational.

The survey, conducted for the city by Colorado-based Ballard & King, posed questions about the existing Barre Street Recreation Center and asked what respondents would like to see if a new recreation center is built.

Seventy-seven percent rated an indoor pool as a needed component in a new center, trailing a gymnasium (84 percent), multipurpose rooms (82 percent), and group exercise/dance rooms (82 percent). However, when asked whether they would be willing to pay $200–$350 a year in additional property taxes for such a facility, only 25 percent answered yes.

That and other responses from the survey was enough to deter city officials from actively pursuing, for now, construction of a new, city-owned recreation and aquatic center that could cost upward of $20 million to construct, not including maintenance and operations.

“It struck me that to successfully plan, build, and get a bond through for a new facility the survey needed to show overwhelming support for that,” said Susan Allen, assistant city manager. “And 25 percent is certainly underwhelming so I know that was going to be an uphill struggle.”

The impetus for the survey was, in part, to address the needs of the 87-year-old Rec Center on Barre Street, which does not meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The question that will likely face city councilors in the next few months is whether to spend the minimum to make the building ADA compliant or take that opportunity to spend more to renovate and improve the facility to address some of the needs cited in the survey.

There are other issues with the Rec Center building as well. The basement is used only for storage due to concerns about lead left over from the former armory’s previous life as a shooting range, and the top floor has only one meeting room plus the office of Recreation Director Arne McMullen. More than one councilor said they appreciate the historic nature of the building and its neighborhood location, despite its boarded up windows and dark interior, which could be revived as was done with the Senior Center across the street.

Allen said the next step will likely be to have an architect walk through the Rec Center and prepare cost estimates for the minimum work needed to meet ADA requirements and mitigate any asbestos or other contamination, as well as provide estimates for a full makeover that might include upgrades to locker rooms and the creation of more multi-use areas, for example. Previous estimates for ADA compliance have run from $161,000 to $400,000 with the addition of an elevator as the largest component. The new cost estimates would then be given to the council. It is extremely unlikely that any remodel of the existing Rec Center could accommodate a pool, officials said.

One thing respondents made clear in the survey results was that not very many people are using the Rec Center as it stands. Only 22 percent said they or their families had used the facility in the past year. They also highlighted the need for a greater diversity of programs.

After hearing a presentation of the survey by Ken Ballard, city council members appeared to support an approach that focused on improving the Barre Street facility.

“The biggest takeaway that I had was that the current building as it exists right now is not meeting the needs of the community,” Mayor Anne Watson said. “It sounds like there is some opportunity here to get the upper floor and basement into a space that is more usable. That building has some lovely bones, it is downtown, it is an unusual and valuable asset, and it’s my inclination in the short term to refurbish that space.”

Even if the city chooses to renovate the Rec Center, it isn’t necessarily the end of the road for indoor pool proponents.

Ballard’s study also referred to the possibility of creating a public-private partnership in which a corporate entity contributes a substantial amount to the project and taxpayers assume a smaller burden. It also referenced the prospect of creating a regional facility that might be funded by several Central Vermont communities.

The first option worked for Claremont, New Hampshire, a town of 13,000. A local bank provided the land and donated $3 million toward a $9 million aquatic and recreation center. That was in 2011 and the facility opened in 2013, so costs have escalated.

Chris Hancock, a Montpelier resident who formed the now-idle group Jump&Splash to help study and promote a new facility, said he agrees that rehabbing the Rec Center is a good idea but encouraged councilors to keep future recreation needs in mind as they move forward.

“Recreation is very important to the fabric of society and to our town,” he said. “Recreation builds community and maintains community. It is important to future livability and has the ability to bring in more taxpayers.”

Hancock said he hopes the data collected by Ballard & King will be built upon and that efforts to find a partner or partners for a new center continue.

“My hope is that we use this surge of interest to provide relevant information and to make sure that if we go for Barre Street that we have our eyes open about how it affects how we go forward,” he said.

The amount of money used to base the question of whether taxpayers would be willing to see their bills rise $200–$350 a year to fund a new center was conservative, city officials said, and assumed a third-party contribution similar to the Claremont example. And still only 25 percent said yes.

“The amount of money that people were asked about was not even half of what it would cost to build and operate a pool,” Mayor Watson said. “And while that would be nice, it’s probably outside the will of the people to take on.”

Ballard & King sent 3,000 surveys to Montpelier residents and received 513 responses. The survey alone cost $13,000, which is included in the total  $47,500 paid by the city for the feasibility study. Ballard is still providing services to the city under that contract.

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