Community center in Sammamish would require large subsidy

June 16, 2011

By Caleb Heeringa

New: June 16, 2:58 p.m.

This simulation shows where the Community Center (the colored areas) could go. City Hall is on the right and the library is in the center. Courtesy Barker Rinker Seacat

A Sammamish community and aquatic center could recoup 90 percent of its operating costs through user fees and other revenue, but would still likely require a $250,000 to $500,000 annual subsidy from the taxpayer.

The subsidy was a ballpark figure given by representatives from Barker Rinker Seacat, aquatic and community center builders who are running the city’s feasibility study on the potential facility. The figures were given during the study’s fourth and final public outreach meeting June 13, which featured occasionally passionate comments for and against the facility from the 50 or so attendees.

At the meeting the consultants discussed a smaller subsidy but increased the high end of their projection to $500,000 June 14 after discovering a mathematical error.

The projections assume the city will charge between $800 and $1,200 for an annual pass for a family, between $300 and $450 for a three-month pass and $5 to $9 for day use. The consultants were careful to note that the projections contained a variety of assumptions about project – that it will include an 8-lane by 25-yard lap pool, a smaller, warmer leisure pool, gym and weight room, as well as community meeting spaces and a day care area. Non-Sammamish residents would likely be charged more than residents.

Those rates would be significantly cheaper than local private health clubs – approximately half of the $2,600 a year it costs for a family to join the Columbia Fitness Center by QFC. But they’d be about on par with the rates offered at the Sammamish Family YMCA, where a family can get an annual membership for less than $900 and offers financial assistance for families who can’t afford the normal rate.

Though nothing has been formally proposed thus far, the council has discussed having a nonprofit organization like the YMCA run the facility once it is built.

Though the June 13 meeting was aimed at discussing the annual operating costs of the facility, several Sammamish citizens lambasted the total price tag of the facility as envisioned thus far – upwards of $64 million if it located at the Kellman property, behind the Sammamish Library. The property has emerged as the consensus choice for locating a community center.

“Are the greatest majority of citizens going to be subsidizing something that only a minority are using?” asked Sammamish resident Mary Jo Kahler.

Ken Ballard, president of recreation consulting firm Ballard King & Associates, said his revenue projections assume that 30 to 50 percent of the population, including people from Redmond, Issaquah and nearby unincorporated King County, would visit the facility at least once a year. The projections are based off of similar facilities around the country as well as pools in Issaquah and Redmond.

During a June 14 meeting of the City Council and Parks Commission, Councilwoman Nancy Whitten questioned whether the emphasis on a facility that encompasses nearly everything on citizens’ wish lists was overshooting the city’s financial realities and setting up residents to be let down if the council comes forward with a paired down project.

“(The feasibility study) has been great in many respects – we’ve gotten some solid community input and heard their hopes and dreams,” Whitten said. “But I’m concerned that the process to date has been divorced from the cost. Seventy million is not in any way shape or form affordable for the community. We’re creating false expectations.”

Responding to concerns about the cost of the facility from the public and council, organizers said their next presentation, scheduled for the July 12 City Council meeting, would include some estimates of the financial impacts of removing certain elements of the current plan. Amenities like a weight room tend to bring in more revenue than they cost to operate, while aquatic elements are often money-losers.

In particular, the 8-lane by 25-yard lap pool, a priority for high school swim teams who are short on time and space in nearby pools, would cost much more than it brings in. Organizers note that ditching the competitive pool would knock off about $100,000 from the annual subsidy, as well as several million dollars of construction costs.

Whitten asked Ballard how high the city would have to set the fees for competitive swimming at in order to recoup the costs of the larger pool. Ballard didn’t have an exact number but said it would be so high the facility likely wouldn’t be used.

“For competitive swimming, whether in Sammamish or anywhere else, it’s very rare to charge the true rate of the cost of operation to user groups … The fee would simply be too high to pay on an hourly basis,” Ballard said.

At the joint meeting, Parks Commissioner Rena Brady questioned why the competitive pool was even being included in the projections, given that last year’s telephone survey showed that competitive swimming did not rank in the top four of aquatics programs that respondents said they would use. Only 7.3 percent of those surveyed were interested in competitive swimming, compared to 15.4 percent for water exercise classes, 17.4 percent for lap swimming, 18.2 percent for swim lessons and 34.2 percent for open/family swimming.

Hayes said those who attended earlier feasibility meetings ranked the larger competitive pool as a priority.

Worried about the cost, Whitten suggested looking outside the Town Center area for a potential site in order to avoid the city’s own development regulations that require 80 percent of parking in Town Center to be underground or in parking garages. Parking for the facility is projected to cost around $10.8 million due to the structured parking requirement.

Mayor Don Gerend noted that the parking requirement was designed to cut down on the storm water runoff that compromises the city’s streams and lakes.

“It’s still in Sammamish, there are (environmentally) sensitive areas everywhere,” he said. “I don’t think making a sea of surface parking is a good idea.”

Though the potential costs of a facility dominated discussion during the meeting, many in the public and on the council remained optimistic that a community center could be something the defines Sammamish for decades to come.

“I’ve got two daughters and I have to drive off the Plateau for just about everything,” Sammamish resident Lena Hanson said. “There’s something beautiful about having it all in one place. I’m spending money in other cities that I could be spending here.”

Reporter Caleb Heeringa can be reached at 392-6434. ext. 247, or cheeringa@isspress.com.

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