Is the Sammamish Community Center worth it?
October 24, 2012
By Caleb Heeringa
Both side make their arguments on community center vote
Sammamish voters have major decisions on their Nov. 6 ballots, with presidential, gubernatorial and legislative races all at stake. But no ballot measure is likely hit as close to home as Proposition 1, which asks Sammamish residents to weigh in on one of the biggest capital projects in the young city’s history – a proposed $30 million YMCA-run community and aquatic center behind the library.
The non-binding vote is designed to give Sammamish City Council members a gauge on whether the public supports moving forward with the 60,000-square-foot building, which would feature a family-friendly leisure pool with a waterslide and lazy river, a six-lane lap pool, two gymnasiums, fitness equipment, meeting rooms and a children’s play room.
Under a broad framework agreed to by the city and the YMCA, the non-profit would kick in $5 million towards the construction of the facility, provide approximately an additional $1 million in internal improvements like furniture and light fixtures and – perhaps most importantly – run the facility to ensure city taxpayers aren’t on the hook in the event of any operating deficits. The city would cover the rest of the $25 million in construction costs, retain ownership of the building and also get a $1 a year lease on a parcel of YMCA-owned land near Pine Lake Middle School, for use as some sort of recreational facility.
The community and aquatic center would be run similar to other YMCAs around the Puget Sound, with dues tied to YMCA monthly fees – currently $107 a month for a family with two adults and less for individual adults, seniors and children. YMCA officials have also verbally committed to multiple perks for Sammamish residents, including free use of multi-purpose rooms, regular free-swim days and a waiver of the normal $125 initial joining fee.
City Manager Ben Yazici has said the city can pay for its contribution to the project out its sizeable reserves – projected at the Oct. 15 council meeting to be approximately $45.8 million at the end of 2014 due to higher than expected revenues from development fees and sales tax this year. The city’s savings account would go down to $20.8 million if it chipped in $25 million for the project. The proposition states that “no new taxes are expected to be levied to pay for operations, maintenance or construction costs.”
Proponents of the project see this as a golden opportunity to address a long-standing request of local citizens – a community pool, an affordable place to get exercise and a space to bring the community together in the future heart of the city. Construction costs will likely be low because of the sluggish economy, a nonprofit is offering to operate the facility and the city has amassed a large amount of savings because it contracts for services like police and fire instead of running its own, they argue.
“While other cities are struggling, Sammamish – because it has been run in a fiscally frugal manner – is in the envious position of having a strong reserve,” said Parks Commissioner Hank Klein, who helped author the “pro” statement in the Voter’s Guide. “This is not strictly a fitness club – this is so much more.”
But the proposal has drawn vocal opposition from some. Former city council candidate Jim Wasnick, who helped author the “con” statement in the voter’s guide, said citizens responding to surveys have been requesting a pool, not a more deluxe fitness center. He questioned why the city didn’t look into cheaper options like building just an indoor pool without the rest of fitness options that put the facility in direct competition with private health clubs like the Pine Lake Club and Columbia Athletic Center, run by Bellevue resident Cy Oskoui.
Wasnick suggested that the school districts and independent swim teams, which have been pushing the city to address the lack of pool space in the area, should chip in for any new facility they’d be using.
“There are so many different options out there that haven’t been explored,” Wasnick said. “The City Council doesn’t care about small businesses and it’s unfortunate.”
Others have compared the proposed facility to YMCAs in neighboring cities and questioned why the city seems to be paying for so much more of this facility. The city of Newcastle waived about $400,000 worth of development and permitting fees for the YMCA when it spent more than $19 million on the Coal Creek YMCA facility in 2008. The Snoqualmie Valley YMCA, which opened up earlier this year in Snoqualmie Ridge, was funded by about $4 million worth of city money, with the Washington State Department of Commerce chipping in about $800,000 and the YMCA fundraising about $250,000.
Marcia Isenberger, Eastside Regional Executive of the YMCA of Greater Seattle, said the Snoqualmie facility is more indicative of the current partnerships the YMCA has been looking at, while the Coal Creek facility is a relic of pre-recession thinking. The YMCA had originally planned to build a facility on the land it owns near Pine Lake Middle School the same time it built the Coal Creek facility and two others – in Shoreline and SeaTac. But the recession took the wind out of the $40 million total fundraising effort for those facilities and the YMCA was forced to scale back plans and drop the Sammamish facility. With the economy still finding its feet, the Isenberger said the YMCA needs partners – like Sammamish – to take the lead on fundraising for future facilities.
“Times have changed,” Isenberger said. “We’d be foolish to try to raise $40 million in this climate.”
Cy Oskoui, owner of Columbia Athletic Clubs, has donated $45,000 to a political action committee that has sent out at least two different mailers urging voters to say no to the community and aquatic facility. Oskoui has said that he fears that his health clubs would go out of business if the facility is built.
Common Sense Sammamish, the PAC in question, also may have run afoul of Washington state election law by not disclosing the top five donors to the PAC on its mailers. Washington State Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said PACs are required to disclose such information if they spend more than $1,000 on a mailer – more than $10,000 was spent on these mailers.
Anderson said the top five donor requirement is new this year and that first-time offenders are generally given a warning, while repeat offenders can be fined up to $500. Oskoui said he became aware of the requirement after the mailers were sent and promised that any future mailers will abide by the requirement.
“I’ve spent 20 years of my life building these health clubs, and now I am fighting for my life,” Oskoui said of the proposed YMCA’s effect on his business.
Private offer rejected
Cy Oskoui, owner of Columbia Athletic Clubs, said he offered to partner with the city on building a community and aquatic center similar to the one being proposed by the YMCA, but his idea fell on deaf ears.
Oskoui said he had been planning on building a 40,000 square foot health club – with a pool – in the north end of Sammamish to replace an 8,000 square foot facility he runs in the Saffron development. Oskoui said developers backed out on those plans after the city announced it wanted to build its community and aquatic center.
A copy of a September 2011 letter sent by Oskoui to City Manager Ben Yazici called for the city to build the facility, which would include a child care center and community meeting rooms, and have Columbia Athletic Company run it. Oskoui proposed to give 15 percent of the gross revenue back to the city, though it makes no mention of how much citizens would be charged to use the facility.
In an interview, Yazici said he did not pursue the proposal any further because Oskoui made no promises about the monthly fees users would be charged. He also said the proposal could be seen as a gift of public funds under state law, since Columbia Athletic Club is a for-profit business.
“Having a nonprofit run the facility is much different than going out and just giving a facility to a private person,” Yazici said.