Swim Center back on drawing board

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

There has been little movement on the Swim Center planned for City Park since a groundbreaking ceremony in June 2019, but the long-awaited pool was back on the City Council agenda Monday, facing a number of changes over recently-raised budget constraints.

Mayor Rick Hall had two options available for consideration – the one approved in 2019 and a new proposal – for consideration, but Council member Kathy Canady opened the discussion by asking that it be tabled so the Parks Board could be brought back to discuss the issue.

“I’d like to see us table this until we can have some discussion with, or maybe a workshop with, the Parks Board,” said Canady as the discussion of the two options on the agenda began. “I really feel like we need their input as well because it’s our Parks Board.”

The Council agreed, and decided to bring the Parks Board members to the July 27 Council meeting to participate in the discussion.

The project, that according to former Council members and city staff, had the funds earmarked for completion, is now being looked at as a project that may be too costly. Finance Director Becky Wilkins said Monday the funds may not be available for the project at the new price tag.

Dramatic price change?
The most glaring change in the plan was the increase in the projected price of the most recently approved design. The current plan, approved in the spring of 2019, was estimated by Halff Associates – the designers of the pool – at $1.35 million, which included the zero-entry pool, two swim lanes and a splash pad.

But according to numbers shared with the Council Monday, Hall said the plan’s projected cost was now at $2.19 million, an estimate also provided by Halff Associates. No explanation was given Monday on how the estimate increased more than $800,000, and requests for an interview with Hall on the issue was met with no response by press time Wednesday evening.

“There’s a pretty huge difference in price,” Hall said. “This was brought about a year and a half or two years ago when we went through to apply for the grant for that project. Initially when that project was submitted with the grant was a million-dollar project. The total on this design has morphed into almost a $2.2 million project and we still haven’t gotten verification yet that the grant has been approved for this project.”

What’s not clear is whether the original price of $1.2 million was after the Texas Parks and Wildlife Grant of $500,000 was figured into the cost or before. The new estimate of $2.19 million is before the grant is applied to the final cost.

The next option
Hall’s suggested alternative resembled a plan he proposed back in October, which the Council rejected at that time.

He emphasized this time the shrinking of the building in the project, and simplifying some other parts.

“The building design is, and this is a comment from the engineer, the building design is way too large as far as the equipment space room, the chemical space room. He said you’ll probably use 25-30 percent of that for the pumps and equipment for the pool, so there’s a lot of additional cost in that.”

He said the simpler proposal made it more affordable.

“This design is more typical of what municipalities do,” Hall said of the new proposal. “It’s just a square rectangle pool, and again, like with the other design it was shaped, it wasn’t square lines, so that also had increased price for the pool.”

The second plan includes a smaller building, no zero entry, and replacing the splash pad with a kiddie pool.

The new plan is proposed at just over $1.5 million based on projections from Halff Associates.

“We’re talking about a $700,000 difference in the project,” Hall said. “But this would still give us the pool the community is wanting. It would give us the appropriate-sized building we need, it’s got the shade structure, it’s got the kiddie pool off to the side. This is why I want the Council to consider this.”

Council hesitation
Despite agreement that discussions should take place with members of the Parks Board, Council member Tony DeYoung called it a “heavy price tag and a large project” to take on now. Council member Gram Lankford also shared his reservations.

“I don’t feel like it’s a good time to spend that kind of money on a project like this,” said Lankford. “I think there’s a right way to do it and in the future, potentially in the near future, we’ll have a better amount of funds to do something a bit more elaborate and I think the community would get a lot more out of it that way. I just don’t see it as the right time to spend a million dollars putting a pool in.”

Availability of funds
The project falls under capital improvement projects, but there was no clear answer whether there were truly finds available for the project – at least not the originally approved project.

“Currently, we don’t have the funds to do the first plan,” Wilkins said. “It’s all contingent on the grant so if we don’t get the grant then that’s another half-million dollars we would have to come up with that we probably do not have at this point for that project.”

Hall said he thought there was currently $1.1 million to $1.2 million left in the CIP funds.

“We need to have this discussion, because like Becky (Wilkins) said, if we don’t have it, then the next item would be to pull that money out of reserves to finish this project, and that’s not a smart project to do with reserve money because reserve money is for emergency purposes, not building swimming pools.”

DeYoung asked for an update at the next meeting on current capital improvement fund allocations and projected expenditures.
Second attempt

This was Hall’s second attempt to change the plan for the swim center, bringing a proposal to the Council in October 2019 with other options as well.

Hall presented a pair of alternate options to the Council for consideration that removed the splash pad and another that replaced the splash pad with a small children’s pool.

Ultimately, the Council voted to keep the previously approved design and to add a low fence and gate to divide the large pool from the splash pad area.

But before the item came up on the agenda, Parks Board Chair Mary Lyn Jones expressed her concern over any potential change to the plan.

“We have been planning the Swim Center for years, the residents of Liberty Hill have been looking forward to this for many more years,” Jones said. “It is frustrating to us as we see other projects going forward or positions and salaries put in front of our swim center. I’d just like for you to consider what we put into it and what we planned.”

Hall thanked Jones for her passionate defense of the project, but said he wanted to discuss the issue once more before it was finalized.

“Excluding myself and Liz, from a Council standpoint, none of us have actually seen the design of the Swim Center we have right now,” Hall said. “Before we submit all the paperwork I want to have the Council look at this and review it. This is one of the last times we can make changes to it.”

Hall voiced his concern over the impact of older kids in the splash pad area on the safety of younger children.

In support of the Parks Board preference, Council members voiced their support in keeping the splash pad for a variety of reasons, and discussed the idea first mentioned by Canady that a fence could be used to divide the two areas.

Project background
The swim center project was first approved by the City Council in March 2017, but was delayed over a grant the City was seeking through Texas Parks & Wildlife to help defray the then-projected $1.2 million price tag.

“Everyone I have talked to has wanted one for a while,” said Hall at the June 18, 2019, groundbreaking. “So we’re going to try to build a swimming pool here shortly.”

The design is for a 4,350-square-foot pool that includes a zero-entry, a “tanning shelf”, and two lap lanes on the opposite end. The original design was for a slightly larger pool, but no swim lanes, but community members lobbied the Parks Board and Council members once the final design was presented to make adjustments that would include swim lanes for use by the high school swim team.

“We wanted to be good neighbors and partners and we wanted to address their needs, too,” said Jones at the groundbreaking. “So we had Halff redesign and put two laps lanes in.”

Plans also include a splash pad, which is roughly 2,000 square feet at an estimated cost of about $150,000.

The original pool house design is roughly 1,300 square feet and is an open-air facility with restrooms, pavilion area and changing rooms. There would be no heating or air conditioning. The plan is to have restrooms and a potential vending area accessible year round for park users, even when the pool is closed.

Plans also include fencing, shade structures, landscaping and grass areas surrounding the pool deck.

The pool became a priority when surveys of the community showed it was the amenity most-wanted in Liberty Hill.

The City was informed in late 2019 the $500,000 grant had been awarded from TPWD, but recently Hall said there were still some issues with the City’s match, which consisted of city-owned park land value.

“I’m hoping soon,” Hall said this spring when asked about when the project might begin. “We’re still waiting for final approvals on the grant. We can’t start the project until we get the grant solidified and approved. We had to make some changes on the yellow book appraisal on the land we’re putting up as a match for the grant so we had to make that change and resubmit it. If we start bidding and awarding the project then we’re ineligible for the grant. I’ve got to hold the project off until I get verification from TPWD that the grant has been approved and we’ve been issued the grant.”

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