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Aquatic center proponents put project on ice

| June 12, 2020 7:33 AM

Voters completing primary ballots may have noticed the absence of any mention of a mill levy for a proposed aquatic center in Libby.

Supporters announced in February plans to put the proposal in front of voters before moving ahead with the project. Though private donors agreed to fund construction of any such facility, taxpayers would cover overhead costs if the project came to fruition.

Given the sudden economic crisis precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, supporters opted against asking voters for the tax increase, said Tony Petrusha, who has helped spur efforts to build an aquatic center in Libby.

“In light of the current events — the virus — we elected to not put the pool issue on the ballot,” he said.

Details about the proposed aquatic center were amorphous from inception, partially owing to an effort to include public input on the eventual design. But Petrusha presented Libby City Council with firmer financials earlier this year.

The group behind the project, which calls itself the Kootenai Wellness Aquatic Center (KWAC) committee, had settled on a design for a $12.6 million facility. Upon construction, supporters planned to turn it over to local government. While user fees were forecasted to generate $100,000 annually for upkeep costs, the facility likely would require another $400,000 each year.

Supporters estimated the cost would add about $30 to the tax bill of the owner of a home valued at $200,000.

“In my opinion, no one wanted to see a tax increase in this June election,” Petrusha said.

Add to that the inability of supporters to organize and promote the effort owing to pandemic restrictions in the lead up to the election. When the effort to build an aquatic center was announced last fall, it met applause. But concerns over how much the facility eventually would cost taxpayers proved an immediate challenge.

KWAC committee members held a series of public forums aimed at soliciting public input on an eventual design and building community support for the undertaking. A survey likewise was distributed.

Early on, residents were presented with options ranging between $5.2 and $9 million. The wider the array of amenities — think indoor versus outdoor pool, the number of swimming lanes and the inclusion of a sauna — the higher the price tag.

Citing widespread support, organizers later proposed an even more expansive design. When Petrusha went before city councilors in February, he said the committee had opted for a six-lane facility capable of hosting school-sanctioned sporting events complete with a wading pool and therapy pool.

Summing up feedback from residents at the time, Petrusha said the message was: “If you’re going to go for it, build a full pool.”

Further details, like the eventual location, would be hammered out after voters approved a mill levy, he said. There was little sense in moving ahead with design and construction if the facility lacked financial support.

By mid-March, though, Petrusha said outside forces had left organizers less optimistic. Had they gone for it, Petrusha said residents could have expected a full-fledged public relations blitz. The group was prepared to host forums, hold open houses and make presentations for community groups, he said.

Despite the delay, supporters remain committed to the project. They are discussing whether to put the proposal on the November ballot or push it off further, Petrusha said.

“We’re going to move forward,” he said. “We haven’t abandoned hope.”