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The Pearl Street Pool: Fiscal Responsibility Must Reign

The Pearl Street Pool is seen full of rainwater in 2017, seven years after it closed to the public.

How can a public pool be such a controversial topic? In the community in which I live, a long-abandoned pool has become just that, with a citizens’ group advocating for it to be rebuilt while the economic situation makes that an uphill climb at best.

This post aims to take a fact-based look at the issue at hand: funding the pool’s refurbishment and operation versus the city washing their hands of the pool idea and repurposing the property.

You may ask why I’m writing about a pool on a blog about biking. Fair question! Simply put, I believe that our city needs to continue to invest in city-wide public infrastructure that makes our city walking and bicycle friendly, and funding a pool would severely limit the ability to do so.

Setting the Scene

The Pearl Street Pool, an outdoor pool that sits on the west side of Centralia’s main south-facing thoroughfare (Pearl Street), is a publicly-funded facility owned by the City of Centralia.

According to information on the city’s website, it was built in the 1950s and had actually closed for four years in the 1980s until the city found a private operator for the facility.

It’s been dormant for all intents and purposes since 2010, when operational costs began to outpace revenue, causing the city to make the decision to shut down the pool. Since that time, the pool itself has fallen into a state of disrepair, with a laundry list of fixes needed before it can be reused.

Taking a close look at its final season of operation, an article in the Centralia Chronicle — a publication whose reporting I will cite frequently in this post — shows that the city used $45,000 of its $2.5 million in reserves to open and operate the pool for the summer.

(Keep that $45,000 figure in mind as we move along in this post.)

Somewhere around 2013 or so, a group of citizens formed a group called S.T.O.P. and Swim, with the stated goal of working to reopen the pool. The STOP acronym stands for Save The Outdoor Pool — and I’ll refer to the group as STOP throughout this post for the sake of brevity.

STOP and the city have been in a continual loop of discussions for at least seven years that involve financial figures that change and balloon as time goes on, a rotating stable of council members, and repeated impassioned pleas to save the pool for the kids’ sake.

The latest development in these circular discussions is a 4-3 vote by City Council to put the idea of the pool on the ballot later this year, with the citizens of our city likely to be asked to fund a construction bond to the tune of somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million, along with a levy to support its operation for 10 weeks out of the year.

And since that vote in December, there has been a rethink by at least two council members who indicated in a late January meeting they may not support that idea after all.

It’s been a long drawn out process that needs to come to an end, and the decision needs to be one of fiscal responsibility. But before I state my reasons as to why, let’s take a deeper look at what got us to where we are today and what might be driving a lot of the discussion.

A Case of Chehalis Envy?

In 2013, an idea came forward from the STOP group to create a complex that included the pool refurbishment and construction of a playground and splash pad. For whatever reason, and my guess is likely due to the cost of rehabilitating the pool, this idea never came to full fruition — although a splash pad was added to the north side of the property a few years later, funded with the help of state recreational grants.

About this same time, the city of Chehalis, six miles to the south and a town with which Centralia seems to have an ideological rivalry with, drummed up $2 million in fundraising and private donations to refurbish its outdoor pool. After a period of construction, the Gail and Carolyn Shaw Aquatics Center opened in August 2014.

While the Chehalis pool has seen long lines of kids and their families waiting to get in during its open season, there has been no such activity at the Pearl Street Pool. It has sat in a shuttered state as the discussions go back and forth on what needs to be done, where the funding is going to come from, and the ever-increasing price tag.

I’ve heard the line “if Chehalis can do it, we can do it too!” a lot, but over the past near-decade, the only filling of the Pearl Street Pool has been with rainwater.

Perhaps the hesitancy to make a decision to reopen the pool is due to the fact that the Chehalis pool, despite being visited by many, is not a revenue generator for Chehalis and actually continues to lose money year by year. (This fact was brought up in the December council meeting, which I’ll expound on later.)

Or perhaps it could be Centralia already has another pool that it is paying for as part of a public-private partnership.

Wait, Centralia already has a fully functioning pool?

Knock me over with a feather, it’s even an indoor pool too.

Meanwhile, At Centralia’s Indoor Pool…

According to a 2018 Chronicle commentary by former columnist Brittany Voie, who did some really good digging to unearth a critical piece of oft-overlooked local history, the Centralia Community Pool was approved by voters in 1978 and subsequently opened in May 1980.

Heh, May 1980. No wonder the opening of the pool is a largely forgotten piece of history, there was some other historic event that happened that month…

Anyway, the pool today operates through a contract governed by three parties: the City of Centralia, the Centralia School District, and Thorbeckes. Thorbeckes, the athletic club just outside of Fort Borst Park, is the operator of the pool and has a bit of info about the pool on its website.

As of the time of this posting (the last week of January 2023), the pool’s schedule offers a variety of options that serves the community. They’ve got everything from lap swimming and water exercise classes to swim lessons and open swim sessions.

And as for accessibility of the pool to everyone, it’s served by a Twin Transit line (the Orange Line stops at Centralia Middle School across the street), sits right next to Fort Borst Park, and is mere minutes from downtown. Cost to get in is $5 for kids 17 and under, $10 for adults, and free for Thorbeckes members.

Seems like a pretty good deal to me. An indoor pool that’s open year round for a variety of uses that already addresses a list of desires the STOP group is asking the city for.

The mere fact the indoor pool exists and serves needs the STOP group asks for, aside from a downtown location, should stop any further discussion on the thought of reopening the outdoor pool on the basis of redundancy.

So why does City Council not just put an end to it, thank STOP for their time and effort, and repurpose the property? I’ll aim to answer this below.

Nostalgia Is a Powerful Thing

Kids have been a focal point of the campaign by STOP to reopen the pool. By appealing to emotion and nostalgia, the group has been able to tug on ears long enough to keep discussions on the pool alive for nearly a decade.

Memories are potent, and it just so happens that for Centralia citizens who enjoyed the Pearl Street Pool when it was open, the overwhelming memories I’ve heard people speak of are good in nature.

When times are bad, we as humans tend to remember the good times and even romanticize times that weren’t so good, but much better than the current state of affairs by comparison.

Seeing the pool in disrepair and thinking of the realization that it will cost a significant monetary investment to reopen likely brings back a flood of good memories to people who want to see it open, and they want to recapture a semblance of what they felt when they used the pool. Thus the desire to see it reopen.

Those memories and what the pool meant to people should be honored. The pool’s a piece of Centralia’s history and it was a centerpiece of many a fun childhood. That means something to a lot of people and should not be discredited.

But there’s a current reality that makes a powerful case against its reopening, and as stated above there’s already a pool that continues to operate 1.5 miles from downtown.

It’s perhaps due to the sentimental pull of what the pool was, that pool supporters I’ve spoken to or heard speak publicly don’t even make mention of the fact the pool exists and is already meeting the needs they state by providing swim lessons for kids and community open swim, among other offerings.

It’s perhaps due to the sentimental pull of what the pool meant to people that some on city council won’t make the decision to put a finality to it all and repurpose the property in a way that the community can still use.

It’s perhaps due to the sentimental pull of what the pool meant to people that pool supporters are pulling out all the stops including reminding people of its Veterans Memorial branding.

The veterans designation brings another angle to this discussion.

The “Veterans Memorial” Branding and What It Means

Before about 2016, I had no clue the Pearl Street Pool carried a designation of being a veterans memorial. Being a veteran myself, it’s heartening to see that a facility was constructed for community benefit and to honor veterans who had served in World War II.

Anyone who served in World War II gets my respect, full stop. As time goes on there are fewer and fewer of them among us. If you know one, thank them and give them a giant hug. It’s because of them America is still America today.

In fact, I covered a story when I lived in Missouri in 2008 of a local Pearl Harbor Survivors chapter that was disbanding because their membership was dwindling. You can guess why it was dwindling. I went into my car afterward and shed a few tears.

So yeah, a veterans memorial designation is a powerful thing and you darn well better not touch the designation for that property.

The site should stand as a veterans memorial, but here’s the thing: the property can and should adapt with the times and become something of greater use for the community. The veterans memorial designation for the site should not change, but the functional use of the property needs to, and can be done so at minimal cost.

In a time in which the VA is woefully inadequate in providing critical mental health care for our current veterans who served willingly, in a time in which we face an uptick in homelessness which affects a disproportionate number of veterans, and in a time food insecurity is higher than it’s been in my lifetime — there are better civic contributions we can make to directly help and honor veterans, and I’d like to see funding at whatever level we can get help take care of my brothers and sisters in arms.

“Why Are You The Way That You Are?”

Anyone who’s seen The Office knows exactly what this reference is about. Michael Scott absolutely hates Toby Flenderson’s guts, which is a running gag through the show, and somehow they have to interact consistently in closed quarters in a smallish office setting.

In any community, especially a small one like Centralia, you’re bound to have a few ideological Michael vs. Toby moments. Not everyone is going to agree on every single issue lockstep, and certainly not when it comes to an item that could set us back a few million dollars in the long run.

I want to ensure in my writings here that I respect the people on the other ideological side of the pool issue. The STOP group has many people who have lived in this community for more years than I have been alive, and have contributed greatly to its people. I honor them while respectfully disagreeing on the need for the pool.

And I just wanted to make that clear before I continue into the part where I talk about the funding mechanism for the pool, comments to council, and more.

Intermission

This is the part where you get to stand and stretch for a moment. In fact I did so while typing this. Go grab a coffee or soda or water or snack or something. Maybe even use the restroom really quick.

Wait, the movie’s over? What the…

Okay, seriously, it felt good to stretch.

Everyone all good? Still with me? Cool. Let’s continue.

We Could Have Ended This in 2019, But Nope!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention an interesting city council meeting in 2019 in which the pool funding question was nearly punted to the voters of our community. What stopped that funding question from moving forward?

As described in a July 10, 2019 Chronicle article, STOP themselves requested its withdrawal from consideration because they felt citizens would not support a $2.6 million bond.

I’ll say that again in bold letters:

The group advocating to reopen the outdoor pool feared citizens would not support a $2.6 million bond to rebuild the pool.

That was in 2019. Note the figure: $2.6 million. That figure was brought forth by energy services contractor Ameresco.

That contractor, by the way, worked with the STOP group to come up with the structural assessment. Make a mental note of that.

After nearly three years of tumult in the world related to COVID, inflation and more — not to mention further deterioration of the pool property — the price tag has been quoted at somewhere near double that 2019 figure.

If STOP feared the citizens wouldn’t support a proposed bond measure in 2019, why on God’s green earth would they not have done the same thing when City Council voted 4-3 to put the question before voters later this year?

And more importantly, why didn’t City Council recognize STOP’s request to take it off the ballot as a clear indication there really may be no financial path forward?

Here’s a piece from the article that I think is interesting:

The nonprofit recently had South Sound YMCA staff conduct an assessment of the pool facilities that, according to a letter signed by executive director Jake Grater, estimated a budget of $700,000-900,000 would be enough to refurbish both structures. “We found the pool facility to be in remarkably good condition considering its age and lack of ongoing maintenance,” Grater wrote. “… A public pool is a special thing that most cities the size of Centralia do not have. I encourage the City of Centralia to do all it can to re-open the Pearl Street Pool.”

“Pool Money Will Not Be On November Ballot,” The Centralia Chronicle, July 10, 2019

So the South Sound YMCA came down to do an assessment on the pool as well and said it could be refurbished for under a million dollars, and the STOP group said the $2.6 million figure by Ameresco, who they worked with, was too high.

Now I’m no expert but I’d tend to trust a professional firm over staff of a local YMCA, no offense to the Y (which is a great organization that we should welcome to Lewis County, by the way). I don’t know how extensive the YMCA analysis of the property was, but STOP seemed to take their word as good, and as such asked council to not go forward with a $2.6 million bond measure.

And council effectively tabled it when they could have put their foot down and pulled their support.

However, they did not.

Real talk: The differing financial figures STOP and the city cite are a critical piece as to why both entities continue to jointly run on a hamster wheel and get absolutely nowhere when it comes to actually doing something about the property.

But there’s another piece entirely to this that should have ground the hamster wheel to a halt even further back, and it’s both the inability of STOP to effectively fundraise and the expiration of state grants due to inability to come up with matching funds.

Inadequate Fundraising + Grant Expirations = Financial Headaches

The Centralia City Council in 2014 gave STOP a fundraising deadline of 2015 to raise $1.6 million through grants and donations, a similar yet lower figure than Chehalis needed and raised to renovate its pool.

The group was unable to meet it, despite stating they had a $200,000 allocation from the legislature and $100,000 in donations — which turned out to be pledges they said were contingent on city support.

Councilor Ron Greenwood asked for proof, such as a bank statement, of the $100,000 S.T.O.P. was claiming. Forrest said they didn’t have one on hand and about $65,000 of it was in the form of pledges.

“I’m comfortable with letting you make another round (of grant applications), but I’m really going to encourage you… let’s quit double-counting money and put some money in the bank,” Coumbs said. “If you’ve got pledges, let’s see something here.”

“Pearl Street Pool Supporters Out of Time,” The Chronicle, May 13, 2015

Interestingly, the state Recreation and Conservation Office awarded a $500,000 grant to the project, and that $200,000 allocation from the Legislature went to build the splash pad that exists today on the north side of the pool.

However, the RCO official project site shows the grant has not been funded since 2017. The grant was contingent on a sponsor match of $1,077,413, which was never met — effectively letting the RCO grant expire.

An interesting bit of text from the project description reads: “Centralia will contribute more than $1 million from a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grant and donations of cash.”

I don’t know the granular details of that, but the Land and Water Conservation Fund is an arm of the RCO itself, so I wonder where the federal portion would come in. At any rate, that funding appears to have not come through at any point from then to now.

As of the time of this writing, other than the $200,000 that was utilized to build the splash pad — which also contains a flagpole array with American flags and flags of each service branch, effectively serving as a veterans memorial — I cannot find record of any other grant currently on the books to help fund the pool or a related project.

Also unknown to me as of the time of this writing is the real amount of money STOP has on hand. I was able to find a federal Form 990 from 2016 provided by Guidestar.org that shows total contributions, gifts, grants and other amounts received to total $64,467.

If anyone knows if there is any current active grant, or can tell me with proof how much money STOP has on hand, I will update this post accordingly and cite my edits appropriately.

Repurposing the Pool: It’s Already Being Done

You may not know it, but there’s a piece to the pool site that I haven’t mentioned yet: the pool house itself. And believe it or not, that piece of the property has already been repurposed into something that is serving our community in a way that is critical and needed.

Volunteers at the Hub City Bike Shop in Centralia work on bicycles in November 2022.

The Hub City Bike Shop has called the pool house home since 2017 through a special arrangement with the city. Lewis County has no full-service bike shop after the closure of Full Circle Bikes nearly a decade ago, and the Bike Shop was formed to provide critical servicing of bicycles on a donation basis.

Full disclosure: I served on the steering committee of the HCBS prior to its initial operations, and have spent time volunteering with the good people there in the past.

Open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the shop provides a range of services from flat repair to wheel truing and more through volunteer labor. It’s a truly needed ministry and outreach to a segment of our community that has been far too neglected over the years: people who rely on their bicycles to get them from place to place.

I dropped into the shop on Saturday to say hey to some friends who volunteer there, and had the pleasure of meeting a guy whose bike was his vehicle. The man was overjoyed at the new lights and fenders he had just received, enabling him to both ride in the rain without getting dirty and ride in the dark safely.

The bike shop’s presence in the pool house is a perfect example of the pool property having been repurposed in a way that benefits an oft-overlooked part of our community. Without the pool house having been vacant, HCBS would have had a difficult time finding a home for its operations.

It’s my opinion, and I may be biased, but here it is anyway – the Hub City Bike Shop should stay there while the property around it is repurposed into park space that is welcoming and inviting for families year-round.

I proposed this to City Council in the December special meeting, and in fact the park idea is a rehash of an idea previously brought to council in 2013, but you guessed it, no action was taken.

About That December Meeting…

Centralia has welcomed several new city councilors into the fold since that 2019 meeting that effectively tabled anything to do with the pool.

Due to COVID and myriad other reasons, the pool hasn’t been brought back up and thoroughly discussed until a special December meeting of the council solely dedicated to figuring out the property’s future.

I attended, as did a few friends. A large number of STOP supporters were present and gave public comments repeating their points as to why the pool should be saved: it’s a veterans memorial, kids need to learn to swim, it’s a historic property, etc.

I gave public comment and was the first to dissent, and as a result I was nervous. My comments basically urged the council to repurpose the pool site but keep it a Veterans Memorial, that the fiscal investment required did not pencil out, and that we already have a pool. I stated I would favor the creation of a parks district that could fund the pool while also maintaining and enhancing our existing park system.

(Now I find myself disagreeing with that last sentence, and I’ll state why in the next section.)

That didn’t sit well with the next public commenter. I don’t know her name, but she called me out from the podium and although I can’t remember what she said, she didn’t address me with the same respect I’d tried to give the group. Thankfully, she didn’t speak for all the STOP group and everyone else was respectful and kept their points on topic.

The Chronicle has a good write-up on the goings-on of the evening, and I encourage you to read it here.

The meeting lasted two hours, in which the council voted in a fashion with which I ardently and respectfully disagree: by a vote of 4-3, the council made the decision to punt the pool issue to voters to decide its fate.

I disagreed with the thought of turning the issue over to voters in 2019 and I respectfully disagree with it now for four reasons:

  1. City councilors have a responsibility to balance the budget. Those elected by the citizens to represent our city have the fiduciary responsibility and duty to ensure the budget balances and that basic needs of our city are met. Directing city staff to spend time and resources to craft a plan and a ballot measure costs us money in the here and now — money we won’t recoup and will prove to be a bad use of time should a potential ballot measure fail.
  2. Councilors are elected to make hard decisions. Punting an issue back to voters when the only fiscally logical vote is to declare there is no path forward for the pool is not “fair and just” as one city councilperson stated; rather, it’s ineffective governance and bad stewardship of city resources. The public elects city council members to make decisions on the governance and finances of our city, not throw those decisions back to them.
  3. Floating a new tax before voters in a tough financial year is bad governance. Property tax assessments for a large number of people in our community took a massive jump. Interest rates are climbing in a federal effort to curb rampant inflation. The cost of staples such as food, clothing and gas continues to climb. (Have you bought eggs lately?) Housing inaffordability is at a high point. Asking the citizens to fund a new tax is at best tone-deaf to the current economic climate and at worst insulting to working people in our community.
  4. The Centralia School District is asking for an extension of a two-year operations levy, which we should support. There’s a tax measure already on the ballot for February, and that’s to renew a two-year operational levy — a tax that’s already in place. The school board made a fiscally wise move and voted to put the current levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value back before voters. With that money being crucial for our schools to operate at a high level, and with the state offering levy equalization money, the school levy is a critical need we should support. For the city to even ask to add another tax measure to that in the same calendar year, for an item that falls far below schools on our list of needs, is irresponsible.

What Happens Next?

City Council is holding a joint meeting with the Park Board to discuss options for the pool on February 13. However, it’s what is happening on February 14 that I find to be of interest: the regular city council meeting that will most assuredly contain an agenda item in which council will be asked to vote to rescind their previous decision to send the pool measure to voters.

That’s an important proceeding, considering a majority of council asked to put it on the ballot in the first place. That means at least one council member has flipped their stance, a decision that has likely evolved when presented with the financial numbers or other public input.

Here’s a recap of the most recent meeting, from The Chronicle. Video of the meeting is available here, with relevant discussion on the pool topic beginning at 53:26. It’s worth a full watch to see where things stand, and the public comments on the idea.

The Reality: The Pool’s Best Days Are Behind Us

Juuuuuuuust in case anyone is wondering where I stand on the issue, I believe it’s time for the hamster wheel to stop spinning and for the pool to close for good. I respect the history of the site and what it meant to many people, but reopening the pool in the current economic climate is not a responsible thing to do.

I’d say that pool supporters should raise money to do this, but I haven’t seen a major fundraising effort yet, nor have I seen support from any company or employer pledging a sizable amount of money to make this happen.

And while there’s vocal support for the pool, donations to this point haven’t reflected that level of support.

It’s time to make the fiscally sound decision to close the pool for good, and turn it into a space that retains its veterans memorial status and serves the community well. I can think of no better way to do this than to build a small park with a covered sport court that exists in harmony with the Hub City Bike Shop and the splash pad.

Remember that taxpayers would be on the hook for at least $5 million just to refurbish the pool; that’s not even considering the cost for continued maintenance and operations of a facility that city staff state will be open 10 weeks out of a year, which is comprised of 52 weeks.

As I stated earlier, the pool in Chehalis is projected to lose money this year and has been losing money since at least 2018. That’s a very important part of this discussion being overlooked. Do you want to see the same thing in Centralia? I don’t, and I don’t think any responsible taxpayer does either.

With only 81 users per day using the pool in 2010, there’s a reason the city closed the pool. Projected revenue doesn’t even begin to pencil out using those same numbers and applying them to 2023. At a quoted cost of $53,151.00 just to fund staffing, 81 users per day at $5 per day covers barely half of that expense, at just $28,350. The rest, including pool maintenance, would have to come from other funding sources.

Operating a pool costs money. Chehalis would know. I don’t want to see Centralia have to subsidize the Pearl Street Pool’s operation.

The cost to build, maintain and operate the pool would be left to taxpayers, who would be footing the bill for its use one way or another either through a levy or, worse yet, the city needing to rob Peter to pay Paul in order to keep it open.

I’d hate to see a police officer position or city employee FTE position yanked to balance the budget due to a bad financial decision in 2023 to fund the pool.

We could very well be left with a $7-plus million ballot measure to fully fund the pool, which is not a wise investment for our citizens — especially considering an indoor pool exists that the city is already helping pay for.

Join the Voices of Reason

I will be urging City Council to close the pool for good and repurpose the property at its February 14 meeting. If you agree, we need your support and for your voice to be heard as well during the public comment session.

Several city councilors opted in December to listen to the loudest voices in the room rather than make a sound financial decision, which has led us to where we are at this moment. With at least one or two of them reconsidering their stance at this time, the momentum to advocate for fiscal responsibility on the pool issue is gaining steam.

Please write your city councilor or email them to urge them to (1) rescind the vote taken in December to put the pool issue on the ballot, and (2) close the pool for good, and (3) repurpose the property for a better community use.

Your councilperson’s contact information is here.

It is well past time for repeated tabling of this issue to end, and for us all to face the music on this issue.

The pool needs to close for good and the property repurposed for community use, such as a park.

If you’ve read all this way through, I really thank you for your time and welcome your feedback. Keep it respectful as I’ve tried to do here, please.

2 replies on “The Pearl Street Pool: Fiscal Responsibility Must Reign”

Thank you Chris. Operating a pool is extremely expensive beyond what you’ve mentioned here. Water, electricity, pool maintenance, insurance, supplies AND staffing. Lifeguards, who need ongoing training, are in short supply.

I agree with you. A lot of funds will be required to bring the outdoor pool up to code and to keep it operating – and that’s for a pool that’s open a few months during the year.
Thank you for supporting the bike shop, which is needed in our wonderful community.

Thanks, Mo.
Completely agree with everything Chris has stated and the reasoning behind it. In fact, if I was a taxpayer in Centralia, I would be thanking Mr. Brewer for his efforts to protect my pocketbook. (Probably even treat him to a steak dinner!)

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