For more than 10 years, the Veterans Memorial Pearl Street Pool in Centralia has been closed due to maintenance issues and budget constraints. During that time, the Save The Outdoor Pool (STOP) group was formed in an effort to reopen the pool.
At a special meeting that lasted nearly three hours Tuesday night at Centralia City Hall, the city council voted 4-3 to create a ballot measure for the 2023 election allowing Centralia residents the opportunity to decide the pool’s fate.
The council’s chambers were full with more than 30 residents, mostly from the STOP group, in attendance.
Centralia Community Development Director Emil Pierson opened the meeting with a presentation on the Pearl Street Pool’s history as well as previous cost analysis studies done to determine how much it would cost to either restore the pool or completely rebuild it.
Originally built in the 1950s as a war memorial, the pool was owned and run by the city until the early 1980s when it was first closed. In 1984, it was reopened due to the efforts of Friends in Need, a local nonprofit that operated the pool until 2008 when the city resumed ownership until 2011 when it closed again.
One point Pierson made was that it wasn’t just maintenance and budget issues that caused the pool’s closure in 2011, but city staffing reductions that started before and have continued since.
“The one thing a lot of people don’t realize is what happened during that time frame. So in 2008, for example, we had six full-time park staff. Today, we have three. In 2008, we had three full-time recreation individuals. By 2012, we had one, and today we have zero,” Pierson said. “And that comes back to why? Because we can’t financially handle these things. What happened? Our services dropped as well as our maintenance dropped. We put a lot of pressure on this small, stripped-to-the-bones (staff) that we have today taking care of the different departments.”
Pierson also reviewed the last cost analysis performed by STOP in 2019, and had estimates adjusted for 2022 using CBRE Group Inc.’s Construction Cost Index forecast.
Those 2022 estimates showed that remodeling or updating the existing pool would cost between $4.4 million and $4.9 million while constructing an entirely new pool would cost nearly $5.2 million.
Additionally, Pierson presented a cost analysis of staffing costs using wage information from the outdoor pool in Chehalis. He estimated it would cost $53,151 to staff the pool for a 10-week season.
Following his presentation, questions were posed by various council members about the possibilities of getting corporate sponsorship for the pool, or possibly partnering with the YMCA or United Learning Center to reopen it.
During the public comment section, Pierson’s estimates were questioned and claims were made that the city was trying to scare people with the cost.
“I don’t think we ... need a Taj Mahal there. If we can go in, rebuild what we have, probably at a better cost and (we can) make this a viable asset,” Port of Centralia Commissioner Peter Lahmann said.
Centralian Bill Ralph echoed those sentiments and stated the city needs to work to find cheaper estimates.
“You could get contractors that will give you outrageous amounts of money to do something and then you got ones that knew what they were doing,” Ralph said.
Other members of the STOP group brought up the pool’s historical significance to the city due to the fact it was originally built to be a veterans memorial following World War II. They said it should be preserved as it was created. They also brought up the need for kids to have places to learn how to swim.
Centralia resident Christopher Brewer, an Air Force veteran, spoke out in support of one of the alternatives to a pool that was being considered — converting the space into a park.
“Turning the pool space into a sport court and a small park area would be very beneficial for families, especially in the immediate era, with year-round availability for its use. As a veteran myself, I definitely appreciate and agree with the sentiment in keeping the site as a veterans memorial. I think that’s paramount,” Brewer said. “This site can still serve as one whether or not a pool exists.”
He added if the city decided to keep the pool he would be in favor of a taxing district to fund it. Centralian Jim McCully stated he supported keeping the pool as he believes its benefits outweighed the cost. He said if it was restored it could help bring more visitors to the city.
“Don’t let those numbers scare you. What I’m saying is, to everyone in this room, we have a valuable resource out there,” McCully said. “It’s in a fantastic location, and what a showpiece. You drive through town and you’ve got this gorgeous pool with kids playing, hot summer day, Fourth of July, what could be better than that?”
As for the sentiments of council members, some wanted to keep the pool and proposed a ballot initiative while Mayor Kelly Smith Johnston opposed that option. She said while she understood where many in the STOP group were coming from, she wants something that could be used year-round by residents.
“I happen to agree with the comments around building community and providing recreation and investing in our youth. I absolutely think that’s a priority. It’s one of the best uses we can make with our money,” Smith Johnston said. “However, I diverge with the thoughts in the room tonight of what is the best investment in our youth and I feel like the outdoor pool has limited benefit. While it’s a tremendous resource when it’s open, it benefits a small amount of people for a small portion of the year and it’s very, very costly.”
She said if a ballot initiative was created it would keep dragging the process out, a sentiment that Mayor Pro-Tem Cameron McGee echoed.
“We’ve been looking through for almost a decade on how to do this. I feel it’s time to make a decision one way or the other. We spent a lot of time, like Councilor (Leah) Daarud said, it sat there, decrepit, as a war memorial, for far too long. I think that we could move forward in a way that would maintain it for longer,” McGee said.
He added that the pool had been closed and reopened multiple times throughout its history and city council positions change as new councilors are elected, meaning even if they do reopen the pool a future council could close it again.
Councilor Elizabeth Cameron spoke out in support of keeping the pool, adding the city should consider going into a partnership to fund the pool.
“You have great opportunity for the United Learning Center there. I think that would be a great partnership there also as I mentioned about partnerships early on. It takes picking up the phone, making the contacts, to generate the interest. It needs to begin there,” Cameron said. “I also mentioned a possible partnership with the YMCA. What happened in the past doesn’t mean it’s gonna happen now if you don’t start making the right connections. Don’t take no for an answer.”
Cameron said that if rebuilt right, the pool could help generate more revenue for the City of Centralia.
After more discussion, the council ended up voting 4-3 to put the Pearl Street Pool’s fate on the ballot next year.
“I think the action we need to take tonight is to get this on the ballot. The citizens need to have their say. We’re never going to put this to rest until we know what our citizens want. If our citizens want this pool, we can make it happen,” Councilor Max Vogt said.
Vogt, along with fellow councilors Sarah Althauser, Mark Westley and Elizabeth Cameron, were the majority in favor of the ballot initiative.
City officials will work over the next few months to create a draft ballot initiative giving Centralians the choice to decide to keep the pool and fund its reconstruction and maintenance costs, most likely involving a bond and a new taxing district. According to Centralia City Manager Rob Hill, he expects the draft initiative to be ready sometime in the spring when it will be presented to the council for final approval.
“I see this move as the right governing process. The ballot will empower our citizens to make a decision and bring awareness to the costs involved. It is unfortunate that this matter was not on the ballot during previous years. However, I am encouraged that this council is willing to move forward to a conclusion,” Cameron said in an email to The Chronicle.
A recording of the Dec. 6 special meeting concerning the Pearl Street Pool can be found online at https://www.cityofcentralia.com/406/View-City-Council-Meetings.