Molalla citizens came out in force to help the city find ways to keep the Molalla Aquatic Center open and profitable

by: PEGGY SAVAGE - Nearly 100 citizens gave input at a special town hall meeting on Molalla Aquatic Center issues Wednesday.As nearly 100 people gathered for a townhall meeting on Molalla Aquatic Center issues, it became clear that practically every citizen there shared a positive attitude and a willingness to find ways to help keep the pool open and revenues coming in.

The recurring theme was ‘advertise, advertise, advertise’ — The consensus among those participating in the town hall was that people need to know what the pool has to offer. And if the pool were promoted properly, people would gain interest and start using it.

A show of hands at the city’s request revealed that about three-fourths of all those at the meeting lived inside the city limits. And what started out as a somewhat gloomy outlook for the pool was turned around into a positive meeting of the minds by the Molalla people who filled the room.

City Manager Dan Huff told the crowd that city staff at the meeting would focus on financial issues.

“We recognize the health and recreation benefits of swimming, but what we really need to focus on is the fiscal issue the city is wrestling with, and has been wrestling with, since the pool opened,” Huff said.

Huff, city Finance Direct Heather Penni, Mayor Deborah Rogge and councilors Glen Boreth, Stephen Clark, Chris Cook, Jason Griswold and George Pottle represented the city. Superintendent Tony Mann and several school board members were present on behalf of the Molalla River School District.

Penni distributed three hand-outs showing an aquatic center timeline from the year 2000 to 2014; an aquatic center fund summary showing revenue and expenses; and pie charts showing a comparison of the pool’s “actual revenue” for the last four years coming from recreation fees, park and recreation fees and a transfer from the general fund.

“This is reality,” Huff said.

Asked why not put out an operating levy for the pool to tax the entire Molalla River School District, Huff said, “That would be the easiest thing in the world, but the district would have to put out that levy.”

Mann said the answer is twofold: first, the school board would have to make that decision on what kind of bonded indebtedness they would want to put before the voters; and second, what are the priorities of the school district. Mann said the district’s bonded indebtedness for construction of the pool has been paid back

“We are willing to be at the table with the city,” Mann said. “We want a good relationship here.”

Huff noted that city bonds for the pool have gone before the voters in the past and failed at the polls.

Gerald Tyler, who said he was on the school board when the original aquatic center contract agreement between the city and school district was made, recalled that according to the agreement,, the district would pay for construction of the pool and the city was to operate the pool. If the city failed to continue operation of the pool, the pool would revert back to the school district.

“I’m well aware of what the agreement was,” Huff said. “What we are talking about is a pot of money. People in the city are also taxpayers in the school district.”

Rogge said the city of Molalla has been going through a recession since that agreement was made. “All that is now null and void,” Rogge said. “We have a shrinking tax base. Regardless of what happened in 2000, we've got to work with today’s tax base.”

Penni noted that the pool needs to be resurfaced, which will cost money. “We have a fiscal inequity problem,” Penni told the crowd. “We are asking for your help in solving the fiscal inequity problem.”

Penni said the city needs to find ways to boost the patronage at the pool. “But the community is not responding,” she said. ”The truth of the matter is less than 1 percent of city population is using the pool.”

Several people responded to her statement, stating that the city needs to reinstate daytime hours at the pool so that people can use it. Pat Cronin noted that she tried to take her grandchildren to the pool over spring break, but the pool was closed during daytime hours for the entire week.

“People who use the pool get involved raising money for the pool,” one person said. “You need to find creative ways to get people involved.”

Eileen Boss noted that the city cut pool hours and raised the fees without giving any advance notice to people using the pool.

“Nobody asked us – no surveys were made. It happened overnight,” she said.” Fees were raised and the hours cut – and that’s when people’s interest was dropped.”

Several people offered constructive suggestions on ways to help raise revenue for the pool, including reinstating the Friends of the Pool organization to generate ideas and offer volunteer support.

Penni responded, “We are trying to keep the pool open, but this is business. The city is barely crawling out from what happened in the last five years.”

Those listening, however, offered positive feedback on ways to keep the pool open. Pat Eaton said, “We had Friends of the Pool going, so maybe if we start over, we can find ways to generate business.”

Many of those who offered ideas focused on the fact that the pool needs to be promoted through advertising, marketing, and connecting with local people.

“There has to be a reason to want to swim,” one woman said. “Maybe we need someone to go to the senior center and talk to people and get them excited about using the pool.”

People reminded the city staff that people would be happy to volunteer their services – that a lot of revenue-making ideas could be carried out by volunteers, costing the city nothing.

“I would volunteer, if that is one of the things to keep the pool open,” said Gerri Monroe.

Asked if there’s a possibility “some other entity can run the pool,” the answer from city staff was “We are not talking about that.”

Stacy Fox suggested the city become more proactive.

“I’d like the city council to have a marketing brainstorm session on how to make better use of the pool, how to make it user-friendly,” Fox said.

Someone asked if anyone on the city staff is dealing with tourism. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t want to close the pool. We want people to come to Molalla, and the pool is one way to make them come.”

Another woman stood up and said, “I’d be willing to pay 50 percent more on my water bill. If water users paid half again as much, and the city still paid their portion , , ,”

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