Community center passes, City Council to forge ahead
November 9, 2012
By Caleb Heeringa
New: Nov. 9, 1:42 p.m.
It wasn’t the resounding vote of confidence many leaders expected and hoped for, but Sammamish voters appear to have given their blessing to the city’s plans for a community and aquatic center.
As of Nov. 8 the center was leading by a 52.3-47.7 margin in the non-binding vote, with 828 votes out of 17,808 separating supporters and opponents.
Barring a drastic shift in the vote tallies against the project, the city appears poised to move forward with the $30 million, 60,000 square foot facility on the so-called Kellman property behind the library. It would be owned by the city and run by the YMCA and feature a 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. The city would pay $25 million toward the project while the YMCA would raise the remaining $5 million in capital funds, spend another $1 million furnishing the facility and cover any operating deficits.
City Manager Ben Yazici said in an email that he hopes to negotiate the terms of the facility’s operating agreement with the YMCA by January. That agreement would spell out the details of the partnership between the city and YMCA, including the length of the YMCA’s lease and a list of what amenities would be free to Sammamish residents without a YMCA membership.
Assuming the two sides reach agreement, Yazici said the designing and permitting process would likely take the rest of 2013 and construction could begin sometime in 2014. The $30 million price for the facility is an estimate and the exact cost will not be known until the city designs the building and puts the construction out to bid.
Though many said they’d have preferred the vote wasn’t so close, councilmembers said they’d be moving full steam ahead given the affirmative vote. Councilman Ramiro Valderrama said the slim majority vote shows that residents are supportive of the city’s partnership with a nonprofit like the YMCA, which will ensure city taxpayers aren’t on the hook for the sort of cost overruns possible in a city run aquatic center and provide subsidized membership for poor members of the community. Valderrama said the slim margin the vote doesn’t give him second thoughts.
“We’ll have some angry people, but if the tables were flipped and we didn’t go ahead with the project, we’d have even more angry people,” Valderrama said.
Councilman Don Gerend said he was optimistic that the facility would provide enough pool space for all the community’s needs – swim lessons for children, open swim time for community members and practice time for school swim teams. And while the devil will be in the details of the operating agreement, Gerend said he did not share opponents’ fears that the facility would prove so unprofitable that the YMCA would back out of the agreement to run the building.
“They are experts at running these kinds of facilities,” Gerend said. “It’s possible that five or 10 years down the line they say, ‘We don’t like how this is working,’ but they have $6 million invested into it already … they’re not going to walk away from that.”
At a Nov. 6 City Council meeting, mere hours before the tight vote, Arthur Goldman, a Sammamish resident and member of the campaign against the project, knocked the council for pushing a project that was “dividing the community” and unfairly competing with the current privately run clubs in the city.
“Trying to cram down a single option with no given process without explaining all the facts or alternatives is just wrong,” he said.
Goldman said the council didn’t adequately pursue a 2011 offer from Columbia Athletic Club owner Cy Oskoui to partner on a new athletic and aquatic facility that would include public meeting space. Oskoui proposed to build and manage the facility on public land and pay the city 15 percent of the facility’s revenue, according to a letter to the city. Yazici said in an interview that the proposal was a non-starter because it did not contain any assurances of affordable user fees and the use of public land by a private business could have been considered a gift of public funds under state law.
Gerend said he was surprised by how close the vote was, but noted that the proposal passed despite more than $22,000 worth of mailers from Oskoui opposing the project because of its potential effect on his current business.
“The ‘No’ side was really organized,” Gerend said. “I guess it goes to show that you can sway people with money.”
John Curley, the only councilmember openly opposed to the project, said he may offer a ceremonial vote against it but said he was expecting the building to go forward given the support from the rest of the council and the affirmative vote from the electorate.
Curley said he felt the YMCA would have eventually built their own more modest facility, similar to the Coal Creek YMCA on the land they own near Pine Lake Middle School without the city’s help. That land will now be leased to the city for $1 a year as part of the current agreement.
“If there’s such an unmet need out there, and such a desire in the community for this, they should have no trouble raising the money to build it,” Curley said.
Marcia Isenberger, eastside regional executive of the YMCA of Greater Seattle, said in an earlier interview that the Coal Creek facility, which cost around $19 million and was primarily funded by the YMCA, was built during a broader multi-year fundraising effort that is unlikely to happen again anytime in the near future, given the economic climate.
Hank Klein, a member of the ‘Pro’ committee, said he was “gratified and relieved” at the results of the vote. The committee raised about $3,000, which went to newspaper advertisements and yard signs.
“The bottom line is that we’re going to have a community asset that is going to serve people for a long time,” Klein said of the proposed facility.
Reporter Caleb Heeringa can be reached at 392-6434. ext. 247, or firstname.lastname@example.org.