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Our pool is drowning

Medford’s only municipal pool is on life support, hemorrhaging 3,000 gallons a day and in danger of being closed at any moment.

The pool was built in 1960, and maintenance workers may be able to keep Jackson Pool limping along for another season or two, but if it closes this summer or next, it will leave thousands of children with nowhere in the city to swim.

“There’s a fighting chance we can open for a 59th year,” said Rich Rosenthal, Medford Parks and Recreation director.

He said the pool needs at least $700,000 in repairs to extend its life, in addition to $221,000 a year to operate the facility. But $700,000 is no guarantee that the pool’s problems will be fixed, because there are so many unknowns when working on an aging facility.

The pool on Summit Avenue next to Jackson Elementary, cannot be drained because the water acts as ballast to keep it in the ground. The original boiler that heats the water is barely able to get the pool to the required 78 degrees. The leaks come from a combination of a cracked seam in the basin and aging pipes that run underneath the pool.

Rosenthal’s suggestion: Close the pool after the 2019 swim season, spend $250,000 to demolish it, and then replace it with a splash pad that would be larger than the one at Hawthorne Park.

But shutting Jackson Pool down after closing Hawthorne Pool in 2010 is difficult for the Medford City Council to imagine.

“What a terrible option,” Councilor Kevin Stine said. “We’re on our last legs with our last pool.”

Councilor Tim D’Alessandro said, “It would be a tragedy to just shut down Jackson Pool.”

Faced with the prospect of having no municipal pool, the City Council has indicated a willingness to build a brand-new aquatics facility modeled after similar facilities throughout the state. The sticking point might be how to pay for it, since voters have rejected bond measures on five occasions over the past 50 years.

So far, the best location for an indoor pool facility might be Wes Howard Memorial Sports Park in west Medford, which has about 50 acres available for an aquatics center and the parking to handle a regional attraction.

The last effort was in 2012 when voters rejected a $14.5 million measure to build replacement pools at Hawthorne and Jackson.

In today’s dollars, the replacement for those pools would run in excess of $20 million, depending on the type of facility the council approves.

Building an aquatics facility could take about three years to develop, even if the city had the money for such a sizable project.

U.S. Cellular Community Park cost $32 million, paid for through an increase in airport car rentals and other fees. The park’s estimated economic impact has been $100 million since it opened in 2008. In 2018, the park generated $11.5 million in local spending, the second-best year despite the smoky summer.

Councilors have expressed an interest in thinking big about the aquatics facility.

“I prefer a U.S. Cellular-type of facility,” Councilor Mike Zarosinski said.

The council indicated a reluctance to try for another bond measure, and city staff will begin preparing options to pay off the pool, including possibly raising fees.

“We need to figure a way to creatively fund these facilities,” Mayor Gary Wheeler said.

He originally thought it better to build a pool near the center of the city but now thinks Wes Howard Park offers more opportunities for a bigger scale and better planned facility that could be added onto in the future.

Councilor Alex Poythress said he would like to see the economic benefits of the proposed aquatics facility early on so that the council can make the case to the public.

Jackson Pool had 30,731 visitors in 2012, but has seen usage drop in the past three years, particularly in 2018 when it was closed for weeks because of the smoke. In 2018, the pool saw 10,949 visitors. Attendance also dropped several years ago after a tube slide was taken out.

At a Jan. 31 council meeting, Rosenthal laid out other options for councilors to consider, including development of a so-called “dry” recreation center.

These centers offer multipurpose gyms, teen centers and other courts. Both Springfield and Beaverton have dry gyms offering more than 90,000 square feet.

Bend offers a number of pool options, including a heated indoor, Olympic-sized pool, a seasonal outdoor pool and another indoor children’s pool.

The Parks and Recreation Commission and staff recommended building a community recreation center to meet local demand for court space and to keep operating costs low.

Councilors voiced their support mainly for an aquatics facility, particularly an indoor pool, but remained open to possibly adding on an indoor court building at a later date.

“We need an aquatics facility,” Councilor Dick Gordon said. “It’s amazing how many kids in our region don’t know how to swim.”

Even though Jackson Pool is located in west Medford, the city has found kids come from all over the city for summer swim lessons.

But raising property taxes to pay for it would not be popular in his ward, which covers northeast Medford.

In a 2015 survey, in which 670 people responded, and a 2018 survey, in which 331 responded, the overwhelming choice was to build an indoor aquatic center.

But, in 2015, 49 percent supported increasing property taxes to pay for the facility, and 51 percent supported raising the park utility fee.

In 2018, 40 percent of the respondents supported increasing property taxes and 60 percent favored a park utility fee increase.

Rosenthal said his staff will put together a proposal for council consideration that will likely have a combination of revenue streams to finance the project. Also some bond restructuring for the U.S. Cellular park could help open up dollars for the project, he said.

One possible location where the indoor pool facility could be located is at the corner of North Ross Lane and Rossanley Drive.

With the city expecting to double in size over the next 20 years, an aquatics facility should get a lot of use.

“These types of facilities are common for cities of this size,” Rosenthal said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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