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Supporters for new pool-rec center inadvertently tip hand on campaign strategy

Above is a schematic showing the proposed $15 million aquatic and recreation center South Whidbey Parks & Recreation wants to build off Maxwelton Road in Langley. The facility includes an outdoor, heated six-lane lap pool, indoor leisure pool with water slide, changing rooms, hot tub, two multi-purpose rooms for parties, offices, a small kitchen, climbing wall, outdoor basketball court and fitness center.  - Drawing courtesy of ORB Architects
Above is a schematic showing the proposed $15 million aquatic and recreation center South Whidbey Parks & Recreation wants to build off Maxwelton Road in Langley. The facility includes an outdoor, heated six-lane lap pool, indoor leisure pool with water slide, changing rooms, hot tub, two multi-purpose rooms for parties, offices, a small kitchen, climbing wall, outdoor basketball court and fitness center.
— image credit: Drawing courtesy of ORB Architects

FREELAND — The new aquatic and recreation center at Community Park will be cheaper than you think.

That’s the emerging strategy that supporters for a $15.2 million pool-rec center project will use to convince voters to hike property taxes to pay for the project.

South Whidbey voters will decide the fate of the project in November.

According to a recent e-mail sent by the director of the “vote yes” campaign, the pitch for the new pool will include an orchestrated letters-to-the-editor campaign that will repeatedly strike the theme of others paying for the pool project, rather than South End taxpayers.

Proponents of the new recreation center are being asked to stress that much of the expense of the new facility will be shouldered by others — from tourists to “waterfront millionaires.”

Andy McRea set out the strategy for the campaign in an e-mail sent to supporters that was also mistakenly sent to the Record on Aug. 21.

In the e-mail, he said supporters would bombard the local newspaper with letters, sent every three days until the election.

While letter campaigns are nothing new — the effort by supporters of the Coupeville Library propositions on the primary ballot is the most recent example — McRea’s e-mail offered a rare public glimpse inside the strategy.

McRea set out 20 topics for supporters to cover in their letters, and offered to help rite them and review them.

Topics ranged from stressing the health benefits for kids that would come from a new pool, to other suggestions, such as mentioning that “second-home waterfront millionaires are going to pay for a lot of it for us.”

McRea, president of the South Whidbey Little League, volunteered to organize a campaign designed to educate people about the center that will appear on the ballot in November.

On another topic, he asked letter writers to stress that a new foundation will help pay for the longterm maintenance and operations costs of the facility. Parks district commissioners have not yet finalized a plan to cover those costs, which will add to an operating deficit of more than $100,000 in the first three years of the operation of the center.

The e-mail also indicates supporters may contrast their proposal with other items on the November ballot; the multi-million dollar makeover of the Langley Marina and the formation of a local utility district.

Pool supporters are also planning to counter Steve Shapiro, owner of Freeland’s Island Athletic Club.

Shapiro was one of those who raised questions the last time a public pool was put on the ballot, in 1998. He said then, and again earlier this year, that South End does not have the population that would make a public pool pencil out.

The pool proposal lost in a landslide in 1998, and received only 37 percent of the vote.

McRea said that if Shapiro begins to attack the rec center, pool supporters will be forced to respond.

McRea also asked letter writers to never call the new facility a “pool.”

“The pool is just one component of many that the park district has researched over the last several years,” McRea explained Monday.

“It is a community recreation center that will reach out to a lot of people with different needs.”

By November, the monthly cost of the pool for property owners — which supporters say will be $5 a month — should become a familiar refrain.

“One of my goals is to encourage everyone to remember that $60 a year is an affordable cost for property owners,” he added. “It isn’t a sales or income tax and only property owners are affected.”

He also defended the idea to raise awareness of absent property owners, and their role in paying for public projects.

McRea noted that the island, with its profusion of second-home owners, is unique.

“The reality is that multiple millions of dollars of assessed property value within the taxing district are owned by people who don’t live here and can’t vote,” he said. “Basically, we get to use other people’s money.”

As to ballot conflicts with other projects such as the marina, he said that voters should always evaluate the merits of each item and vote accordingly.

“There is no negative aspect to this campaign; the more accurate facts people have, the better the chance they’ll see things our way.”

Earlier this month, South Whidbey Parks & Recreation District commissioners voted on a 20-year bond to pay for the center. The tax levy impact will add 17.3 cents per $1,000 of assessed property tax value to property owners over the next 30 years.

A home worth $300,000 will see an added monthly cost of $4.32, or $51.90 per year.

If the measure passes on Nov. 4, the recreation and aquatic center will be built next to the Community Park’s entrance on Maxwelton Road.

The draft plan from the district consultant ORB Architects includes an outdoor, heated six-lane lap pool, indoor leisure pool with water slide, changing rooms, hot tub, two multi-purpose rooms for parties, offices, a small kitchen, climbing wall, outdoor basketball court and fitness center.

“I have a 3- and a 6-year-old and I want to see them grow up using a place like Park & Recreation’s rec center,” McRea said. “I strongly believe that interaction with others is a key component in a child’s formative years.”

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

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