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Meeting features report on how four rural communities are paying to build and operate a pool

JASON CHANEY - Kristi Steber with the Shelk Foundation introduces (left to right) Scott Green, manager of Boardman Pool and Recreation Center; Jim Weyermann, executive director of Madras Aquatic Center Recreation District; Skip Matthews, president of Willow Creek Park District in Heppner; and Mark Hickok, Hood River Valley Parks and Recreation District director.

What it takes for four different rural Oregon communities to build and operate a community swimming pool is not a simple answer.

Different towns have different circumstances, resources, advantages and residents so pinning down what works is not an exact science. However, during a meeting hosted by the Shelk Foundation Tuesday evening, about 100 people in attendance learned there are certain steps that are critical to moving such a project forward.

John and Linda Shelk recently commissioned a study that involved input and data from four communities in Central and Eastern Oregon. Having witnessed multiple efforts to replace Prineville's aging swimming pool either fail or stall through the years, they decided to reach out to communities that have succeeded in that endeavor and find out how they did it.

What resulted was a 26-page document that highlights community pools in Boardman, Madras, Heppner and Hood River. It includes a rundown of what was built — or in the case of Hood River, what they are planning to replace — a breakdown of expenses and revenue and what current operating strategies entail.

The Tuesday meeting held at Meadow Lakes Golf Course was intended to give the public its first glimpse at the results of that study as well as a chance to hear from representatives from each community.

Speaking first was Scott Green, who is the center manager for Boardman Parks and Recreation District and oversees the Boardman Pool and Recreation Center. The facility feature a 150,000-gallon swimming pool, a 14,000-gallon therapy pool, a vortex pool and a two-story waterslide as well as a gymnasium, weight and cardio room, a climbing wall and more.

Green noted that the center opened in July 2017, but the process of reaching that point stretched back to the 1980s.

"It took a long time," he said. "The community came to board meeting after board meeting trying to push this."

After multiple efforts stalled, Green said they finally formed a large group of people from Morrow County, the City of Boardman, the Port of Morrow, small businesses and local residents.

"They went door to door, talked to just about everybody in our community of about 5,000," he said. "Just getting the information out was huge for us."

Community leader buy-in and citizen outreach was one constant that all guest speakers highlighted as they told their stories. Jim Weyermann, the executive director of Madras Aquatic Center Recreation District, comes from a history of managing youth sports teams and professional sports teams, including involvement with the Golden State Warriors.

"I thought running a professional sports team was hard. There is nothing like running a pool," he remarked.

Regarding public outreach, he stressed that a community needs to address "value propositions," or reasons why a community would benefit from a new pool.

"In Madras, there was an awakening that came around a couple of tragic incidents. We lost several young toddlers to drowning (in irrigation ditches) throughout our region," he said. Community members consequently concluded that kids needed a way to learn to swim. "

"That's a pretty strong reason to think about wanting to build a pool," Weyermann continued.

Another value proposition related to what he called village greens, or places where people in the community have historically gathered to play and interact. He lamented that village greens are disappearing from communities throughout the country, but added that a community pool provides such a place.

"A pool is without question a village green," he said. "It's a place where the community comes together to validate who they are."

His final value proposition related to the health benefits a pool can provide children. He stressed that this country is "losing the health battle with our kids," and believes a pool will provide a popular option for increasing physical activity and long-term health.

Skip Matthews, who is president of Willow Creek Park District in Heppner, stressed the importance of buy-in from all of the key community leaders and organizations. Solid relationships helped them raise the money needed to build a 165,000-gallon outdoor swimming pool in a town of just 1,800 residents.

"We have to have collaboration," Matthews said. "The City of Heppner, everybody loves everybody. The county loves the parks district, the parks district loves the city, the city loves the bank and the bank loves everybody. If you have one of these units that doesn't like what you are doing or can't get along, that's a real roadblock."

Thanks to the community buy-in, Matthews said they were able to get voter approval of both a construction bond and an operating levy.

Mark Hickok, the district director for Hood River Valley Parks and Recreation District, echoed those beliefs. Having worked in five different jurisdictions in multiple states, he was seen pool projects succeed and fail. "The ones that make it are the stories of people liking each other and people all deciding to compromise and put things together," he said.

Hickok noted that Hood River is still in the process of replacing its pool, one that was built in 1948 and was city-operated until 1990 when a parks district was formed to prevent its closure. The community has plans to build a $20 million indoor, two-pool fitness center, after developing support from stakeholders and community members and compromising on certain features to keep the cost palatable. Hickok said they plan to put a bond measure on the November 2020 ballot.

Like the other three communities, pool leaders have made swimming lessons a point of emphasis, and in Hood River, Hickok said it is one of the options that is subsidized the most.

"Public safety is our number-one mission, learning to swim," he said, "and we are creating the next generation of swimmers, our next generation of people who will care about the pool."

When it comes to the daunting task of raising funds to build a pool and operate it, speakers stressed the importance of thinking outside the box and developing innovative ideas.

Matthews recalled a time when they were trying to acquire the property to place Heppner's new pool. The land was owned by ODOT and so community leaders went to the agency and asked them what it would take to obtain the property. In response, the agency said they could not get money for building a fence around the property, so if pool leaders were will to fence the entire property when they built one around the pool, ODOT would give them the property.

"You have got to grease the wheels," Matthews said. "You have got to think outside the box. You have got to reach out, especially if you are short on resources."

Boardman pool leaders decided to sell naming rights. They sold benches that people could put their family name or civic group name on, which would be placed along a gravel trail on the pool property. They turned to multiple large businesses in the area, offering the opportunity to purchase naming rights for different portion of the recreation center. These naming rights are paid over a five-year period, providing the facility $160,000 in additional annual revenue.

"Sometimes, you have got to get innovative with that," Green said, adding that the community also raised funds by hosting a 3-on-3 basketball tournament.

"There are a lot of different things you can do to bring the community together and people into your community by just thinking outside the box," he said.

Weyermann said Madras was looking into the 3-on-3 tournament option as well as venturing into the "tournament business" because he has seen other communities financially benefit. However, he went on to say that the money raised might go into a maintenance fund, something he believes is crucial to the success of any community pool.

"You have got to figure out how to cover the maintenance," he said, offering a cautionary tale of how the Madras facility had to fix two boilers with $263,000 of money from the operations budget. "That is generally done through a naming rights deal or some kind of an endowment."

Following the presentations from the community representatives, the group answered audience questions written on index cards that were handed out at the beginning of the meeting.

Several questions revolved around the size of the communities' taxing districts and if they had considered or would recommend expanding tax district boundaries. A district boundary expansion has been considered locally by a citizen-led pool committee though no action has been taken.

The speakers said their community did not go that route and because it is such a tough sell for taxpayers, they hesitated to say it was a good plan of action. Another line of questioning asked the speakers where they recommend a community start when pursuing a pool project.

Green strongly suggested a substantial public outreach campaign, drawing approving nods from the other three speakers. He recommended holding numerous public meetings and continually reaching out to learn what the community really wants.

Matthews went on to add that it is important to get interested, key community people involved early in the process.

Kristi Steber, who facilitated the meeting for the Shelk Foundation, concluded the session by offering local residents a chance to take the information provided and help spearhead a Prineville pool replacement effort.

"If you have been inspired, if you are one of those 20 or 30 people who are passionate and tired of talking about the pool and want to do something instead, if you want to help put together a viable plan to move forward, we have sign-up sheets at the back of the room," she said. "If there is enough interest, the Shelk Foundation will convene another meeting in September and at that time, turn it over to whoever wants to go forward with it."

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