thoughts about our new aquatic center, VFW pool, and Legion pool
At tonight’s city council meeting, we will consider the approval of a design for our new aquatic center. This has been a process 3½ years in the making. It all started when our Board of Park Commissioners decided in January 2015 to pursue the idea of one swimming facility.
Today, we have two traditional box pools, one at VFW park (opened Summer 1958) and another at Legion park (opened Summer 1962). Both pools are aging and, according to a recent condition report, must be replaced. We’re dealing with too much down time for repairs on both facilities and we’re spending too much money on those repairs.
So, we all agreed (Park Board and City Council) that we must demolish our two pools and start over. Then we had to answer the question, now what? After some extensive study of usage, expenses & income, and what has been proven to work in other Wisconsin communities our size (our most recent population estimate is 24,721), we decided to build a single aquatic center.
But there are a number of families who feel that we should continue to maintain two swimming facilities in the city. So that is the source of some concern that has been raised lately. And this summer, I’ve received a handful of emails about the issue. One recent email in particular was very well written and spelled out four specific concerns. After responding to her email, I figured it might be helpful to share her four concerns here along with my responses in italics:
- This project is too expensive. $440,000 per year to maintain along with the building costs are not necessary when the aquatic park is not wanted. The cost for this pool is too high. What will the cost be for family’s to utilize the pool? It is cheaper to rebuild the pools we have.
I disagree that it’s cheaper to rebuild the pools we have. It will be cheaper to build one facility than it would be to build two. Our usage stats for both facilities is not what it was many years ago, and the extensive research done by city staff shows that in this day and age, what makes residents start using a water facility again is when it has aquatic features. So, we can’t just rebuild two brand new box pools because that won’t increase usage.
- De Pere is not just one city. It is two “neighborhoods” within one city. One pool does not provide our friends on the east side the access to pools. Children ride their bikes to the pools. The common issue I hear when listening to other parents is that no one wants their children to have to cross the bridge because of how busy the roundabout is. Two neighborhood pools are what DP wants to keep our children safe and encourage time at the pools.
De Pere is indeed one city. And again, our research shows that in cities our size, having one facility works well to serve all residents. If you look at Neenah, for example, they have one newer aquatic center. Residents who live close can walk/bike to the facility, residents who live further away can drive there if they prefer not to walk/bike. It works, and it’s safe. Here in De Pere, residents who live near Voyageur Park can walk/bike there to use the Riverwalk or the new playground. And residents who live further away can drive there if they prefer not to walk/bike there. I know there are families on the west site that are driving their kids to Voyageur Park. It’s really a simple issue, and no matter how far you have to go, parents just decide what method of transportation they prefer.
- Are you focused on bringing people in to DP to use the aquatic park? I feel this is the case because citizens of DP/users of the pool are being ignored. There are plenty of busy aquatic parks in the metro area. People come to our box pools to relax and watch their children have fun and grow confidence with swimming/diving off the boards. At aquatic parks, you are constantly worried someone is going to steal your personal belongings. Who can relax in a cramped pool?
I am not focused on bringing non-residents to the new facility, however, we can’t ignore the fact that attracting non-residents to use the facility will indeed help pay for its operation. This idea has been proven true for many years, as we have many non-residents who already pay higher fees to participate in our park and rec programs. We can certainly close our programs to non-residents, but then us residents will have to pay more. While you might enjoy the fact that not many people use our pools, and therefore they aren’t cramped, it’s that exact issue that’s causing us to lose money on the pools.
- I realize that many years have gone into this decision-making. However, I feel this topic was slid under the radar for several years. It would be better if this went to referendum.
This issue was not “slid under the radar”. Everything we do at the City Council and on the Park Board is done in open meetings. Anyone can attend any meeting. Anyone can read our agendas, our minutes, watch videos, etc. It’s all in the open. I’ve found it interesting to hear that so many people care so deeply about our park programs but don’t pay attention to what our Park Board is doing. Even after all of the discussion these past 6 months, not a single resident attended the Park Board meeting last month where they discussed and approved the design of the aquatic center. I understand that you may not have known about the decision, but that’s certainly not the fault of the city or the council.
I then summarized my comments in that email by saying this:
I realize that we just disagree on this. I hope you don’t take any of my comments the wrong way. I’m not on the Park Board, and I was originally very concerned about their decision in January 2015 to move forward with the plan for one facility; I also wanted to keep two pools. But after I saw the research and the numbers, there’s just no way we can afford to keep two. I’d love to be able to, but it just wouldn’t be responsible of me to vote that way. And it seems that many other aldermen as well as the entire Park Board feel the same way after seeing the same research.
Also, let’s be honest here. None of us really knows what will work and what won’t. We don’t have a crystal ball. All we can do is move forward with what we think is in the best long term interest of the entire city. And that’s what I’m doing.
One of my biggest concerns about her thoughts is this idea of being one city. When she says “De Pere is not just one city”, I just couldn’t disagree more. WE ARE ONE CITY.
Yes, we have a river running through our city (which we are fortunate to have). Yes, we have two school districts (which is unique in the state of Wisconsin) and we still have this east/west thing going on. I don’t question any of that. The problem is that in a small city of less than 25,000 people, we can’t afford to keep thinking and operating as two cities. It’s that simple. We don’t have the budget of a large city. Our operations are similar to many other cities in Wisconsin with similar populations. And like us, those cities can’t afford two swimming facilities.
On Sunday, July 22, the Save Legion Pool group met at Legion Park to talk about their efforts and next steps. I attended that meeting (though I don’t think most people knew who I was) so that I could simply watch and listen. Based on comments shared that night and the emails I’ve received, by and large, all of the concerns that have been raised are around things like, “my kid takes swimming lessons” or “we like our quiet neighborhood pool”. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not mocking, these are the actual concerns that I’ve heard. I’m just saying that none of those concerns consider all the research I’ve seen. None of them consider the economics of the entire project.
So, when issues like this come to us elected officials, we don’t have the luxury of listening only to the most vocal families in our city. When people say, “this is what you were elected to do” or “you have to listen to us taxpayers”, that’s not telling the whole story of our responsibility. It’s not that easy. In everything we do, in every decision we make, we have to look out for the best interest of our entire city in the long-term.
Look, if you consider the extreme other end of the scale, and we were just deciding on new lighting in a parking lot or where to place a park bench, those are easier because no matter what you do, you’re not committing city resources for many decades. And a worse case scenario is that you can always cut your losses and take down that lighting or park bench. But with a $10 million facility (no, we don’t know the cost yet, but that’s my estimate), we don’t have that luxury. We have to get it right. It would be irresponsible for us aldermen to commit all future city councils for the next 5 decades if we don’t feel we can afford it.