City to study three sites for community pool

The City of Mercer Island and the Mercer Island School District will be looking for another possible site for a community pool, after the Stroum Jewish Community Center Board voted not to participate in a shared facility.

After an exploratory study, the board of directors at the SJCC has declined to participate in the effort to build a joint pool facility with the city and the school district in their East Mercer Way facility.

As a result, the city is ready to hire a consultant to look at the feasibility of building a new pool at the existing site on 40th Avenue S.E. or potentially at two other locations: Luther Burbank Park or the site of the old Boys & Girls Club in the East Seattle neighborhood.

The city, along with the school district, moved to keep the facility open after the nonprofit Northwest Center ended its contract with the city to operate the pool last December. But it is a risky business.

Northwest Center declined to renew its contract last year, citing the fact that operating public pools was not profitable and that it was not in line with the non-profit’s core mission, that of helping the disabled.

In January, the Olympic Cascade Aquatics, a local group of swimming coaches, took over the management of Mary Wayte. After the new management was in place, the city, along with the school district, began to look for another pool operator and at the same time a longer term solution to the aging facility, which needs extensive repairs and upgrades.

The city took a look at the capacity and willingness of private pools to take on community swimmers to see whether or not a shared arrangement could be found.

The pool at the Stroum Jewish Community Center was the first one to come to mind when considering a public-private sponsorship. The pool is part of the SJCC campus, which is essentially a regional community center, but operates with the funds from private memberships and other sources.

Similar to Mary Wayte, the pool serves a large population and has classes, lessons and activities for all ages and leases the pool sometimes to outside organizations.

After the study to assess the capacity and conditions of all pools on the Island and a discussion of what a partnership might look like, the city approached the SJCC. The SJCC agreed to an exploratory process.

Contrary to other reports, the SJCC had not agreed to partner in the project up front.

The SJCC has already been looking at options to expand their entire campus and potentially the swimming pool for some time. A capital campaign would be needed in any case to expand the facility.

“The JCC was invited to participate in an exploratory process to explore the possibility of a joint public-private partnership with the city for a pool,” Neuman explained.

After that process, it was time for them to make a decision if they wanted to go ahead, she said.

In the end the board decided that it was not the time for the SJCC to enter in to the project.

“Our attention,” Neuman explained, “is elsewhere. We have so many other items that need attention. If it were a different time, it might be possible.”

“It was not for lack of interest,” she said.

“If you are going to do (a project such as this) right, you would need to give it your full attention. We just have too many other things going on.”

Councilman Dan Grausz was grateful for their effort.

“The JCC has declined to pursue a joint facility,” said Councilman Dan Grausz. “I fully understand their reasoning and appreciate the time and effort they put into considering this.”

Yet, he acknowledges that the partnership aspect of an investment like a community pool is key to making it work.

“Going forward, the school district is the logical partner as they need a pool to support their aquatic teams. They have already indicated an interest in providing capital dollars,” he said. “The district would have been a partner in this project even if the JCC had remained in.”

The city is now moving forward to hire a consultant to help decide how to move forward with planning a pool and finding a suitable site, Conrad said. The discussion may include whether or not it will be a community pool or an aquatics center somewhat similar to that in Federal Way or a design that combines several aspects of each.

According to City Manager Rich Conrad, looking at the feasibility of the three sites and possible designs is just the beginning of such a project.

A new pool will cost citizens money.

“What is missing and what we really need now,” Conrad said, “is for the community to let us know if they will support a new pool and what is needed to pay for it. We need to hear from them.”

Grausz agrees.

“Bottom line is that we now need a group of Islanders to take ownership of this project and become its champions. Absent that, we will not get a new pool when Mary Wayte is closed in a few years. The city can help make this project a reality, but it first requires community leadership and initiative as we cannot hope to pass a bond issue without a community group leading the effort.”

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