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Medford takes the plunge with new pools

An enormous year-round aquatic center with a $60 million price tag has sparked the imagination of city officials hoping to put Medford on the map as a sports-park destination.

The concept, supported by Medford City Council on Thursday night, calls for two pools and an 89,559-square-foot event and recreation facility, which would be built at Wes Howard Memorial Park in west Medford at the corner of Ross Lane and Rossanley Drive.

“This is a clear message from the voters for the city to take leadership and to take action in developing these key community assets,” said Alex Poythress, Medford council vice president.

“We need to pass these measures one way or another, particularly to close the loophole in the tax measure,” Poythress said. The loophole means vacation rentals such as Airbnb don’t pay the lodging tax.

Increasing the tax helps position the city better to take on these kind of large projects, Poythress said.

“I hope people see this as the future,” Councilor Kevin Stine said.

Rather than ask voters to pay for the proposal by raising property taxes, the council showed support Thursday night for paying off the facility over a 30-year period with a combination of higher hotel taxes, expanded car rental fees and an almost doubling of the park utility fee from the current $2.95 a month to $5.35, a $2.40-a-month increase.

The facility would dwarf the new Logos Charter School, which opened this fall on a portion of the park, and the proposal far out-scales previous proposals that have been floated for new pools. Altogether the indoor facility would cover 163,380 square feet, and with 400 parking spaces and other outdoor areas, the project would cover 23 acres of the 58-acre park.

The west Medford neighborhood that surrounds the property has been waiting to see it developed ever since millionaire Wes Howard died in 2003 and bequeathed his estate to help create a facility for local children.

The proposal calls for a recreational pool that would be 2,300 square feet larger than the existing Jackson Pool, which is in danger of closing down, and would have a shallow entry for young children as well as an artificial river and vortex. On one side there would be a three-lane, 25-yard lap pool. Nearby would be two tubular slides, one 164 feet long, the other 176 feet long, and an outdoor splash pad similar in size to one at Hawthorne Park. One of the slides would be built for speed, and the other would throw in a few curves to slow things down.

To attract regional swim meets, water polo competitions and other events, a 13-lane competition pool would be built inside an adjacent building. Lockers and other facilities would be constructed next to the pools, and a food truck court would be installed next to the building.

The buildings would have roll-up doors that could be opened during fair weather.

City officials want to build new pools to replace the 1960-era Jackson Pool and the former Hawthorne Park Pool, which was closed in 2010 and then demolished. Parks maintenance workers continue to try to keep Jackson Pool operational despite its age, spending $700,000 to repair the tank and other problem areas.

The hope is the new pools would be a regional draw, much like U.S. Cellular Community Park in south Medford.

On Thursday, the council discussed the proposals and how to pay for them.

“There is a way to get it done with the least amount of stress on residents,” Stine said.

Instead of pursuing a bond measure, which has failed four times in the past, the city is considering increasing the tax paid to stay in local hotels from 9 percent to 11 percent, though this would require voter approval. The council showed support for putting the proposal on the ballot next year. The city previously raised the lodging tax from 6 to 9 percent to help pay for U.S. Cellular Community Park.

Eli Matthews, senior vice president with Travel Medford and a former city councilor, said local hotels would support the increase because U.S. Cellular park has been good for business.

“They seem to be very favorable,” he said. “USCCP fills up hotel rooms.”

Under the proposal, car rental fees, which are charged only at the airport, would be applied citywide. The rate is 12 percent.

Annual operating costs for the facility are projected to be $1.3 million, though city officials think they could recoup at least 65 percent and possibly as much as 85 percent from facility rentals and user fees. The city currently subsidizes the operational costs of Jackson Pool by $178,000 annually. Medford residents would get a special price to use the facility, possibly around $3.50 a day, and out-of-towners would pay more.

Naming rights, similar to U.S. Cellular Community Park, would also be sold, and the council indicated a willingness to put those dollars toward creating a pool of money to create scholarships for low-income families.

Rich Rosenthal, Medford Parks and Recreation director, said the aquatics center could have the potential to be a regional draw like U.S. Cellular park, which he said pumps $11 million into the local economy annually, filling up hotels, restaurants and other businesses.

“If we built these facilities today, there is enough demand,” he said.

A survey of Medford residents found 83 percent support the idea of an aquatics center, but 60 percent favored a utility fee over a property tax increase, Rosenthal said.

The massive events center, which could fit eight basketball courts under its roof and would be about eight times the size of Medford’s Santo Community Center, could host trade shows, graduation ceremonies, wrestling events and car shows. Under the current concept, the building would have metal sides and would be constructed like an erector set.

If the city proceeds with the idea quickly, Rosenthal said it could be built by late 2022 or early 2023.

Based on current economics, Rosenthal said the price range for the entire facility would be from $57 million to $60 million.

Other aquatics centers in the West have cost anywhere from $23 million to $88 million, he said.

Rosenthal said having indoor facilities would attract families wanting to find things to do when skies are smoky. Attendance at Jackson Pool dropped in 2017 and 2018 because of wildfire smoke and because the water slide had to be removed, Rosenthal said.

A developer has already approached the city about building hotels near the proposed aquatics center park, which is close to the north Medford interchange for Interstate 5 as well as Northgate Marketplace.

Leslie Brown, a 30-year-old Gold Hill mother who brought her son to a playground next to Jackson Pool, said she supports the idea, though the cost was a surprise.

“That would be great for the community,” she said. “When I grew up (in Indiana), I had an indoor pool, and I appreciated it.”

The large recreational and events center could do double-duty by hosting concerts and other events. Smoky skies that plagued Southern Oregon the previous two summers forced many events to cancel or move indoors.

Councilor Clay Bearnson, who supported the project, said he hoped the city could build a small park on the property, something the city is planning to do at some point.

He wondered whether the events center could feature acoustical treatment so it could be rented out for concerts.

David Wilkerson with ORW Architecture in Medford, which drew up the preliminary concept, said acoustical treatment could be added, increasing the cost by more than $1 million or more depending on what type of acoustical treatment the city wanted.

He said the large space could also host Britt Festival shows that need to go indoors when summer smoke fills the valley.

“This would potentially be a backup venue,” Wilkerson said.

Even though voters have rejected property tax hikes to pay for an aquatics center, Mayor Gary Wheeler said it should be easier to get local support for raising the transient lodging tax, which he said is still far less than in other cities and would be paid by people coming from other areas.

“I’m more optimistic because the TLC doesn’t affect Medford residents,” he said.

Wheeler has fond memories of going to the pool in Hawthorne Park when he was a kid.

“It killed me to close it and bury it,” he said.

Having this much land available for a big facility doesn’t come along often, Wheeler said.

“If we don’t take advantage of this, we’re being foolish,” he said. “I want this.”

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

Medford officials reveal a concept for two pools and an enormous recreational facility off Ross Lane. Illustration courtesy of ORW Architecture and city of Medford.