Camas officials must temper community’s expectations on pool

If you didn’t know the history of Camas’ public swimming pool — which city officials decommissioned in 2018 after reports showed the 1954 pool was failing and would likely cost millions to restore — and you happened to attend this week’s Camas City Council meeting, you could be forgiven for thinking Camas officials have been shirking their responsibilities when it comes to satisfying their constituents’ thirst for a new public pool. 

“Whether we want to admit it or not, people are upset about it,” Camas City Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen said during the Council’s meeting Monday, July 17, referring to the city’s lack of a public pool. “Let’s get it on the agenda. We need to move it forward. We keep kicking the can down the road, and people are getting upset about it.”
Two other city councilors seemed to agree with Lewallen’s assessment. 

“I get a lot of comments on the pool as well,” Councilwoman Jennifer Senescu said during the July 17 Council meeting. “I think it’s time to start discussions on a pool.”
Lewallen brought the pool up again during the Council’s public hearing on the proposed zoning changes and new design requirements for the city’s North Shore area north of Lacamas Lake, which is an area that has underwent significant urban-growth planning for the past four years and included feedback from thousands of Camasonians and North Shore stakeholders. 

“Where’s the pool?” Lewallen asked city staff who were presenting the North Shore zoning and design manual already approved by the Camas Planning Commission. “Do we have an option for a pool? That is something citizens have said they want over and over. That should be included in the visioning of this area.” 

As an elected city official who is privy to the massive amount of public input gathered during the city’s nearly four-year subarea planning for the North Shore, Lewallen should know that a public swimming pool was not part of the North Shore Vision city council members approved in September 2020. 

“A pool was not part of what the community had asked for (in North Shore),” Camas Planning Manager Robert Maul told the Council on Monday.  

Camas Community Development Director Alan Peters agreed, and said that, though the proposed zoning changes in North Shore wouldn’t necessarily preclude the siting of a public swimming pool, the idea “hasn’t risen to the top of where a pool should be.” 

Instead of stoking community members’ hopes that the city might be able to build a public pool in the near future, city officials need to take the facts they’ve learned during Council workshops and meetings to help educate the community about the true reality of what it will take to fund, plan, build, operate and maintain a pool in Camas. 

Last year, the Council asked Parks and Recreation Director Trang Lam to look into what it might take to initiate a pool-building process. Lam presented her findings to the Council in July 2022, and told city officials that only a handful of the 1,300 Crown Park users surveyed in 2022 said they were interested in the city pursuing another swimming pool at that location. 

“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.

Lam told members of the Camas Parks and Recreation Commission in June 2022, that the city does not have the staffing levels necessary to have a “full service” parks and recreation department that could build, maintain and staff an aquatics center. Instead, Lam suggested, the city could look for partners such as the YMCA, which is expected to break ground this year on a community-aquatics center in Ridgefield that has been a decade in the making. 

“This is a 10-year process,” Lam told the Camas City Council last summer, 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 and a hiring 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. 

Pursuing a new pool will come with its fair share of challenges and costs to taxpayers. Officials know this. They know building a public pool will not happen overnight or, perhaps, even in the next decade. They also know it will be expensive, and that the vast majority of Camas voters (90%) said in 2019 that the city’s bid to build a $78 million community-aquatics center was far too expensive. They know there will be operating and maintenance and possibly significant energy costs associated with running a public pool or aquatics facility — in fact, rising energy costs in Europe caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have threatened to close hundreds of public swimming pools across the United Kingdom and France this summer — and that taxpayers will probably need to be willing to pay for some of these costs.

If Camas officials want to help community members who may still be mourning the city’s former pool, they have an excellent opportunity right now — before the “pool issue” becomes a talking point for city government candidates this fall — to come clean with their constituents about the unpleasant realities that accompany the construction and maintenance of a public swimming pool and avoid stoking fantasies that are simply not rooted in fact.