Camas voters to face $78 million question

Prop. 2 asks voters to build community-aquatics center, renovate sports fields

An illustration shows what the future Camas Community Aquatics Center might look like if voters approve a $78 million bond on the Nov. 5 ballot and city leaders opt to build the center on a city-owned parcel near Lacamas and Fallen Leaf lakes. (Illustration courtesy of city of Camas)

Kelly Moyer/Post-Record Campaign signs against (front) and for (rear, center) the city of Camas' Proposition 2, which would allow city leaders to take out up to $78 million in bonds to build a new community-aquatics center and renovate three sports fields, stand near other campaign signs outside Crown Park in Camas. (Illustration courtesy of city of Camas)

“There have been a lot of studies, but no actions,” Camas City Councilman Greg Anderson told his council peers in April when the group first brought up the idea of bringing a community center bond proposal to voters in the next general election. “I would rather do something and fail than do nothing.”

Anderson, who has lived in Camas for 26 years and been a member of the city council for more than 22 years, said the idea of building a community center in Camas was something that had been kicked around as long as he could remember.

Three months later, Anderson and the rest of the Council agreed to put a proposition on the Nov. 5, 2019 General Election ballot that would allow the city to issue general obligation bonds in an amount up to $78 million for the construction of a new community-aquatics center and renovation of three Camas sports fields.

Steve Hogan, another longtime Camas city councilman who had seen the idea of a Camas community center pop up several times in his 14 years on council, agreed the issue was ready to come before voters.

“It’s time to move forward with something,” Hogan said in July. “A lot of good people over the years have tried to get this on the table.”

Camas voters will decide the fate of the city’s Proposition 2 in the Nov. 5 general election. To pass, the proposition will need to garner the approval of 60 percent of voters.

‘A compilation of needs and requests’

Proposition 2 asks Camas voters to approve up to $78 million to build a community-aquatics center at a yet-to-be-determined location in Camas, and renovate sports fields throughout the city.

When they voted in July to bring the issue to voters, city councilors had reviewed 12 options presented by city staff.

The selected option was not the most expensive — the highest ticket option also included a $12 million sports complex — but it did include the most amenities for the community-aquatics center, such as a 78,000-square-foot building with a recreation pool, a competition lap pool, gymnasium, community rooms, cardio and weight rooms, and an indoor walk-jog track overlooking the gym courts and the preferred (but not definite) site’s forested areas.

The selected option also includes $6 million worth of upgrades to local sports fields. If approved by voters on Nov. 5, the proposal would make $2.7 million worth of renovations, including turf and lighting, at Forest Home Park; $2.3 million in improvements at Prune Hill Sports Park; and $1 million in renovations to sports fields at Dorothy Fox Park.

Camas Mayor Shannon Turk recently told the Post-Record the bond proposal is “a compilation of the needs and requests” city leaders have heard from community members for the past two decades.

“I understand why this might feel like several bond measures in one request, but this is the compilation of many years worth of requests,” Turk said.

During her three terms on the Camas City Council, Turk, who holds a master’s degree in public administration from Portland State University and has worked for local governments in the Pacific Northwest since the late 1990s, said she regularly heard from constituents about a desire for more and improved sports fields as well as a new community center.

“I think sports fields improvements was one of the biggest improvements I heard during my council years,” Turk said. “I know getting a replacement (swimming) pool was also important to the community.”

Camas officials voted in 2018 to demolish the city’s 65-year-old outdoor municipal swimming pool in Crown Park, after Washington State Department of Health regulators told city leaders the pool had severe mechanical and structural issues. The city was already spending around $75,000 a year just to open the pool for about 10 weeks each year, and never recouped the costs to maintain the pool from its user fees. In 2017, city officials faced an additional $300,000 to open the pool and even that was no guarantee that the pool wouldn’t need additional fixes down the road.

“There was no guarantee those same problems wouldn’t crop up again. We didn’t know if we would spend this money, at least $300,000, and then it would be a year or two before we had the same problem,” Turk told the Post-Record in early 2019, just weeks before the pool’s demolition.

Once the city decided to close the public pool, state rules demanded the pool be demolished or reopened within one year. City officials OK’d the pool’s demolition and crews dismantled the historic pool — the only outdoor public swimming pool in Clark County — in early 2019.

But the community-aquatics center was never intended to be a straight substitution for the outdoor pool, Turk said. And city officials still intend to revamp Crown Park, where all that remains of the historic swimming pool is a flat, grassy field.

“We have not forgotten about Crown Park,” Turk said. “It’s definitely not going to be forgotten. It’s the most loved park in our city.”

While city leaders still intend to redo Crown Park, possibly installing an outdoor water feature like a splash pad near the former site of the outdoor swimming pool, the idea of building a community center with an indoor, year-round pool is something that was on city officials’ radar long before they discovered the city’s outdoor pool was having major problems.

In 2017, the city hired consultants from the Portland-based firm Greenworks PC to help plan the future of Camas’ Crown Park. More than 1,400 residents weighed in on the firm’s survey.

During this process, Randy Curtis, then chairman of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission, told the Post-Record a number of respondents said they would rather see a year-round aquatics center in Camas.

An indoor aquatics center was something Curtis, the 2016 Camas “Citizen of the Year,” also was passionate about.

“We’ve seen in surveys that have been done (on a potential Camas community center), that one of the key things people want is an indoor aquatics center,” Curtis told the Post-Record in 2017.

Turk said she supports the community-aquatics center proposal for that very same reason.

“We have great recreation opportunities in Camas for about four months out of the year, but then, the rest of the year, people need a different place to go and that means families are going into Vancouver,” Turk said. “The community-aquatics center would provide year-round recreation opportunities for local families.”

City officials have long known the cost of building a community-aquatics center would be pricey. In April 2018, a Washougal-based community center study committee received preliminary information from a Colorado consultant showing the cost of a 63,875-square-foot multi-use community center with a lap pool and a leisure pool as well as a gym, walk/jog track, community room, kitchen, classroom, game room, weight/cardio area, cafe and drop-in child daycare area would cost nearly $40 million to construct

Likewise, in October 2018, a committee exploring a joint Camas-Washougal community-aquatics center discovered it would likely cost about $60 million to build a 87,000-square-foot community center with a 7,500-square-foot recreational pool, an eight-lane competition pool and an indoor walking track.

When they approved sending the issue to voters, Camas city councilors said they recognized the $78 million was a big ask for the community, but thought the community was driven to get something like the proposed community-aquatics center built in Camas.

“We do a survey every two years and the community center has been in the top five ‘wants’ in nearly every survey for a while,” Anderson told the Post-Record earlier this month. “This is something people have been asking for.”

Camas City Administrator Pete Capell said the community support shown in the bi-annual surveys weighed into the council’s decision to “do the full thing instead of phasing it” when it came time to take the bond to voters.

Capell said council members have not yet indicated if they might be willing to come back in a future election with a smaller community-aquatics center bond if voters knock down Proposition 2 on Nov. 5.

“Early on, (council members) said, ‘Well, people are asking for it now, so rather than continue to study it, we’ll see what the voters want,'” Capell said. “Previously they have said they’ll put it to rest (if the bond proposition fails), but they can always revisit it.”

Opponents questions location, costs

The issue of where to place the community-aquatics center has convoluted the bond proposition for many voters.

Although many city officials seemed drawn to a city-owned parcel near the intersection of Northwest Lake Road and Everett Street, between Lacamas and Fallen Leaf lakes, Turk said opposition to the proposed site have made her realize the city will likely need to reevaluate location if the bond passes on Nov. 5. “I do believe the concept (on the site near Lacamas Lake) is absolutely beautiful,” Turk said. “But there have been enough concerns brought up that movement of the center may be advisable.”

Leaders of a “No on Prop 2” group did not return the Post-Record’s requests for interviews, but many residents critical of the bond proposal have said they have questions about the proposed center’s traffic and environmental impacts if city officials choose to site it at the proposed site off Lake Road.

Capell said preliminary studies by city staff have shown the center would not overload the nearby traffic intersection at Lake Road and Everett Street, which is set to be reconfigured into a roundabout that should accommodate Camas’ growing population for at least 30 years. He also said more extensive environmental and traffic impact studies would be required for any site city officials choose for the proposed community-aquatics center.

City leaders have considered several sites for the community center, including the former site of the now-closed James David Zellerbach School at 841 N.E. 22nd Ave.; a parcel known as “the Anderson property” near Camas’ Goot Park off Southeast Zenith Street; some downtown Camas parcels; land owned by Georgia-Pacific; and the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) property off Northwest Lake Road recently purchased by the Camas School District.

The current bond proposition includes $5.8 million in site improvement costs, so if the city chose another location, those costs — slated for things like improvements to Lake Road and parking expansion at nearby Heritage Park — could be rolled into the construction costs, especially if the city had to purchase land for the community center.

“There have been some concerns about the location and not just about the traffic,” Capell told the Post-Record this week. “There is nothing in the bond proposition that states it has to go there (off Lake Road). We would evaluate the site in more detail if (the bond) passes. And we have considered alternate locations.”

Bond opponents also have questioned how the center’s construction — as well as future operations and maintenance — costs will impact Camas’ property owners.

According to the city’s finance director, Cathy Huber Nickerson, the bond would cost Camas property owners and additional $1.04 per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2021 and decrease gradually to 67 cents per $1,000 of assessed value in 2039. This would cost the owner of a $464,400 home — the median Camas home price — $41 per month, or $492 per year, in 2021. There are tax exemptions available for those age 61 and older, disabled residents and veterans with a household income of $50,348.

The bond would last 20 years and would be more spread out amongst taxpayers as the city, expected to increase its population by nearly 50 percent over the next 20 years, continues to grow.

“What ends up happening is that the bond debt is the same amount every year but we end up with new construction and new people moving in, so (the cost of the bond) is spread out,” Capell said.

The costs to commercial property owners in Camas, Capell admitted, could be substantial, but city leaders say they believe the construction of a community-aquatics center would help attract and retain corporations and business owners looking to locate in an area with a high quality of life.

“We as a community have always voted in school levies because the quality of education, the quality of life is really important to this community,” Capell said. “It’s also what attracts a lot of employers and businesses. So, yes, if you’re a large employer with lots of property, you’re going to be paying a lot, but also it’s going to be the kind of community you want to live in.”

Many residents have approached the city council and mayor with questions about the center’s future operations and maintenance costs. Some worry city officials will return with a request for more taxpayer money to keep the center going if Prop 2 passes on Nov. 5.

Turk and Capell have both said the city will not go out to voters with an operations and maintenance levy request for the proposed community-aquatics center.

An analysis by a city consultant showed the difference between the center’s expenses and revenues would be $843,000 annually. Capell said the city has $400,000 from its Parks and Recreation budget to help decrease that annual cost as well as the roughly $100,000 the city spent each year to repair and open the now-defunct Crown Park swimming pool. Indirect costs for human resources, administration and finance connected to the staff costs at the center would likely generate another $76,000 from the city’s enterprise funds such as water and sewer, Capell said. That would put the operating and maintenance costs to the city around $267,000 a year.

“These are just ballpark numbers,” Capell said. “It may end up being less. … The bottom line is: we’re not going to ask voters for a new tax (to cover the operating and maintenance costs.”

Turk said she has heard from people concerned the community-aquatics center could endanger local businesses that provide similar services.

“It is not our intention to put anyone out of business,” Turk said. “Instead of thinking that, if we offer dance classes we’ll put a local dance company out of business, I see (the community center) as an opportunity for local instructors to partner with us.”

Turk said she sees the community-aquatics center as an incubator of sorts for local recreational businesses and dance or yoga studios: the community center classes would help open people’s eyes to a variety of athletic pursuits but only offer beginning type of classes so residents would need to visit local businesses to take more advanced classes in dance, yoga or martial arts.

Capell agreed and said he believes similar businesses can thrive in a community like Camas.

“I look around downtown Camas and it amazes me how many coffee shops and beer shops we have,” Capell said. “It seems like, when another one opens, the (existing businesses) thrive and do just as well.”

‘Never once have I wavered on the importance of this bond’

Turk has received the brunt of the bond opponents’ ire this election season, even drawing two write-in candidates for her position as Camas’ mayor, but said she stands behind Proposition 2 and believes the community-aquatics center would be good for Camas residents and for the city’s future.

“If this passes, we’re going to be a more livable community,” Turk said. “I’ve worked in parks and recreation for a long time and I’ve seen the benefits (of community centers). If this passes, the kids here will have a place to go. They can dive into a pool instead of jumping into the potholes (a dangerous but popular swimming spot near Camas’ Round Lake). Seniors will come and won’t have to feel so isolated or alone. The teens would have a place to go instead of going home and hiding out. I think about what this would mean to our community. I think about the people who would gain new skills through classes at the community center, about the neighbors gaining new connections to other neighbors. About my home’s value going up.”

Turk admitted there have been times this election season when she wondered why she ever opened this particular can of worms, but said she still believes the community-aquatics center — despite backlash from some residents — would be a boon to Camas.

“I personally believe in this 100 percent,” Turk said. “I’m confident that we are setting the community up for success. I’m sure of that. Never once have I wavered on the importance of this bond.”

To view links to Post-Record stories on the Camas pool and community center dating back to 2017, visit camaspostrecord.com.

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