Milton-Freewater pool rejuvenated ahead of next swim season

The Joe Humbert Family Aquatic Center in Milton-Freewater is benefiting from a parks and recreation tax levy that was passed last year.

It’s no secret that maintaining a pool is expensive, especially one that’s open to the public.

The aquatic centers in Pendleton and Hermiston each cost well over a half-million dollars to operate on a yearly basis.

If a public pool falls into disrepair, the owners can choose to either invest more money to address the backlog or cut their losses and close it for good.

Two pools in Umatilla County chose different options when faced with mounting repair bills.

On Monday night, the Milton-Freewater City Council toured the Joe Humbert Family Aquatic Center, where City Manager Linda Hall showed some of its renovations.

Before the meeting, Hall said the city has sealed cracks at the bottom of the pool that have caused leaks in the past. Other amenities like bathroom stalls, toilet fixtures, changing tables, and pool umbrellas were also replaced.

The repairs were made possible by a 37-cent property tax levy for parks and recreation passed by the city in May 2018.

Although the levy proposal was never supported by a political action committee or an organized campaign, it was still approved by Milton-Freewater voters with 54 percent of the vote.

While the revenue from the levy isn’t earmarked for a particular part of the parks and recreation system’s backlog, the city decided that the issues at the aquatic center were the top priority.

With an expected windfall of $80,000 per year, Hall said the city started receiving revenue from the levy in the fall. The levy provides some financial support for a pool that was starting to show its age.

Situated in Milton-Freewater’s Yantis Park, the public pool that preceded the aquatic center was supposed to act as a way to unite two communities that existed in contentious rivalry for decades before agreeing to merge in 1951.

When Look Magazine profiled Milton-Freewater when it won the All-America City Award in 1962, it said the then-city manager expected the pool “would drown whatever rivalries persist.”

“Compromise,” he told Look, “is our only answer.”

The pool received a significant update when Milton-Freewater voters approved a bond to turn the pool into an aquatic center, complete with a 25-meter pool, a water slide, bathhouse, concession stand, and a sand volleyball court.

But more than 20 years of wear and tear took its toll on the aquatic center, and without the revenue that has led to a new slate of repairs, Hall had said that closing the aquatic center was not out of the realm of possibility.

Not every pool gets the investment it needs before its too late.

Despite pleas from the local youth swim community, Blue Mountain Community College closed its indoor pool. The BMCC pool had already racked up millions of dollars in repairs from cracked concrete, aging pumps, and inefficient heating, ventilation and cooling by 2018.

So when the college discovered a significant leak in the pool, its fate was sealed and closed in June.

The development caused the swim teams for Pendleton and Hermiston high schools to search for new homes.

Pendleton High School Athletic Director Tory Jerome said the boys and girls swim teams use the swimming pool at the Roundup Athletic Club for practice during winter before transitioning to the uncovered pool at the Pendleton Aquatic Center during the summer.

While the swim team is done for the season, Jerome said he hopes the RAC will continue to partner with the school going forward.

When the Hermiston School District joined the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association in 2018, it split its boys and girls teams into two different athletic seasons.

With the girls’ swim season in the fall, Usher said they practice at the outdoor pool at the Hermiston Aquatic Center while the boys travel 20 miles to practice at the Boardman Pool and Recreation Center during the winter.

Usher said the swim teams’ current situation means they can’t host any meets, but there has been some community discussion about building a new indoor pool.

Pendleton has held similar discussions, with the Pendleton Swim Association going as far as to announce that it wanted to raise up to $1 million to purchase an inflatable dome that would cover the aquatic center pool and allow for year-round swimming.

But there haven’t been many public updates since a meeting with the Pendleton City Council in 2017, and association President Fred Robinson did not return a request for comment left on his phone Monday.

Marcia Akes contributed to this report.

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