Is a Camas pool back on the table?

City Council could OK $150K 'pool planning' expense in city's 2023-24 budget; parks director warns: 'this is a 10-year process'

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Families cool off at the Camas Municipal Pool in July 2013. City officials shuttered the pool in 2018, after reports showed it was "failing" and in need of major renovations. (Post-Record files)

Nearly three years after Camas voters in the November 2019 general election overwhelmingly, by a margin of 9-1, shot down a city proposal to build a $78 million aquatics-community center, Camas officials are considering bringing a public pool conversation back to the table.

Having heard from several constituents who may not have supported the city’s $78 million bond proposal, but still longed for Camas’ public outdoor swimming pool — which city officials decommissioned in 2018 after a report showed the 1954 pool was “failing” and would cost taxpayers millions of dollars to restore — Camas City Council members in 2021 asked the city’s parks and recreation director, Trang Lam, to gather information about what it might take to have a public pool in Camas once again.

Lam, who came to Camas more than one year after the failed 2019 “pool bond,” researched the history of the city’s historic Crown Park swimming pool, delved into the city’s 2019 bid to build a two-pool aquatics-community center, reached out to possible partners — including the YMCA, which will soon break ground on a Ridgefield aquatics-community center facility in northern Clark County — and pulled cost estimates from other jurisdictions that have built public pools in recent years.

In July, Lam brought her information back to the city council.

City learned public pool was failing in 2017

Though many residents loved the historic swimming pool located inside Crown Park near downtown Camas, city officials learned in 2017 that the pool was failing.

“We, the city, in 2017, did an assessment of the pool,” Lam told the Council during a July 18 workshop. The pool scored 26.88 out of 100 possible points and consultants said the facility was failing.

“At the time, the recommended (pool) repairs and replacements equaled the cost of new construction,” Lam said.

Then, in 2017, Clark County Public Health inspected the pool and told Camas officials if they couldn’t make the necessary repairs, they couldn’t open the swimming pool for the 2018 season.

Camas officials — who had by that point had been having preliminary discussions with Washougal city leaders as well as representatives from the Camas and Washougal school districts and the Port of Camas-Washougal about building a regional aquatics facility — took the issue to the community in 2018, and asked residents: If the city were to build a new, year-round aquatic facility, would you prefer to renovate the existing Crown Park pool, create a new leisure pool, have a small water feature or have a larger water feature?

“They did a big survey back then and had a lot of people responding,” Lam said. “Over 1,400 people answered.”

The city’s Parks and Recreation Commission in 2018 recommended removing the aging pool at Crown Park and replacing it with an interactive water feature — but only if the city were to continue to pursue, as a high priority, funding a year-round aquatics facility, Lam said.

Though voters did not support the city’s 2019 “pool bond” proposal to increase property taxes to fund a public aquatics-community center on city-owned land near Camas’ Heritage Park and renovate sports fields throughout the city, Camas officials said many of their constituents were still asking why the city couldn’t build a much less costly public swimming pool.

Lam said there are a few questions city officials should ask when discussing the possibility of bringing the pool conversation back to the table:

  • Does the idea align with the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces (PROS) Plan?
  • Is there new data? In a recent Crown Park survey that captured the thoughts of more than 1,300 Camas park users, there were a handful of people still interested in placing a swimming pool in Crown Park. “I read over 300 comments and categorized all of them,” Lam told the Council in July. “And 69 people commented about wanting a pool, but not necessarily at Crown Park. About one third (of those 69 commenters) wanted (a pool) at Crown Park.”
  • Are there other pools nearby that are available to the public? “When you take a look at facilities near Camas — some are public and some are private — there are eight facilities within a 30-minute drive (of) Camas City Hall,” Lam said.
  • What are the opportunities and constraints? “We can learn from nearby facilities,” Lam told the Council in July. “I’ve talked to the YMCA and (the Vancouver Parks and Recreation Department). We can understand our market — we may have a larger market than we did in 2018. And we also have a market in Washougal. We had talked about partnering with them. We have opportunities for partnerships with other jurisdictions, nonprofits like the YMCA and maybe the school districts. We also have a lot of land, so we have choices about where we want to build and that is really important.”

Staffing constraints in parks department

The city also has some constraints when it comes to planning for a public pool, Lam told the Council in July, including a limited number of staff members working for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“I’m the one person who does planning projects for Parks,” Lam told the Council on July 18.

Earlier this summer, on June 22, Lam told members of the Camas Parks and Recreation Commission the city did not have the staffing levels necessary to have a “full service” parks and recreation department that could build, maintain and staff an aquatics center.

“What do we want to be as a parks and recreation department? Do we want to be full service? Or do we want to give that up and really focus on what we’re currently doing?” Lam asked the Commission in June, after presenting some of her findings on what it might take to build a public swimming pool or aquatics facility in Camas.

Lam has said that, if city officials decide they want to pursue initial planning for a public pool, the city will need to do much more extensive public outreach and educate the community on how long a project like this might take and what it might cost to build and maintain an aquatics center.

Lam showed city council members some figures in July that showed similar facilities, which varied in size from the 40,000-square-foot Clark County YMCA aquatics facility being built in Ridgefield to the 80,000-square-foot Firstenburg Community Center in Vancouver, charged between $30 and $55 for monthly passes, required between 10 and 15 full-time employees and between 75 and 130 part-time employees — plus about 60 additional part-time employees during the summer months – and recovered between 48% and 60% of their total costs.

‘This is a 10-year process’

Lam also told the Council she has discussed a possible timeline with YMCA representatives, who agreed it would likely take Camas 10 years to plan, fund and build a public aquatics center.

“This is a 10-year process,” Lam said, noting that the first two years of the process would involve “building trust” by forming a Citizen Advisory Committee, hiring a project manager for the city’s parks department — to help Lam free up enough time to concentrate on such a long-term project — and a consultant team to form a public engagement plan, conduct market studies, help with site selection, work on conception designs and come up with preliminary operating cost analysis. The city and its possible partners would move into funding strategies — coming up with final costs, grant opportunities and funding sources — in the third, fourth and fifth years and focus on the logistics of building a facility, including securing all funding and procuring the necessary permits and construction partners, in the final five years.

Building relationships with the community and potential partners is critical, Lam told the Council.

“The key is to bring partners in early and have these conversations together,” Lam said.

$150K ‘pool planning’ expense could be part of 2023-24 budget

Lam told Council members in July that she would bring a budget package back to them during the city’s 2023-24 biennial budget process so city officials could decide if they wanted to kick off what would likely be a decade-long effort to site a public pool or public aquatic facility in Camas.

City leaders will now consider two pool-related budget decisions for possible inclusion inCamas’ 2023-24 budget: $150,000 for pool planning and $120,000 — plus an annual investment of around $100,000 — to hire a project manager for the city’s parks and recreation department.

“If Council would like to pursue a pool facility, funds from this package request would be used to select a consultant team to complete public engagement and concept plans,” Lam noted in her communication with the Council during budget presentations on Aug. 1 and Aug. 5.

Lam has recommended that, if the Council decides to fund the $150,000 pool planning budget package, that city officials also fund the project manager position “to free up (Lam) to lead the project,” as well as a $60,000 planning project for the existing Camas Community Center “to find an optimal solution for the community’s facility and programming desires.”

Camas Mayor Steve Hogan will publish his proposed 2023-24 biennial budget in October and city council members will continue to discuss budget issues throughout the fall, leading up to the Council’s adoption of the 2023-24 budget in December.

Even if the Council decides to move forward with planning for a public pool or aquatics facility, Lam has cautioned the process would still be in its infancy — with a long way to go until Camas residents might get to enjoy having a public pool in their community.

“To get a wonderful facility, and to operate it, we need resources to plan for it and do it well. We know from the past what it looks like when we shortcut it a little bit, so let’s do it well, even if it takes a little longer,” Lam told the Council in July. “It’s a large investment. … And we have to answer early questions: ‘What kind of pool do we want? Do we even need one? Are we in the market for one? What is the purpose of having it? What kind of facility do we want? Is it worth investing in the community center we have or do we want to bring in a new facility?”