Some may question why Imperial County’s largest city does not have a public swimming pool but after treading water for a decade El Centro is readying a pool commensurate with its development motto to "go big."
Construction of the new aquatic center at Fifth Street and Adams Avenue started the week of July 16.
The $15.7 million complex will include an eight-lane competition pool, a warm-up pool, activity pool with beach entry (zero depth), lazy river pool (shaped like a meandering brook), all outdoors, and an indoor area with offices and rental rooms for parties.
Since The Plunge at Eighth Street and Adams Avenue closed in 2008 owing to deteriorating infrastructure, residents of El Centro relied on the kindness of neighbors to swim. Most opted for the Central Union High School or Imperial Valley College pools. Yet after a tug of war with the state of California, funds were finally released to green light a facility.
The aquatic center was supported by an $11 million bond issue approved by the city's financing authority in 2011, noted El Centro Mayor Cheryl Viegas-Walker.
But a more recent development was vital.
"It was really Measure P that put us over the goal line and gave us the capital expense to run the pool and hire a staff to manage it," said Viegas-Walker.
Measure P, a city voter initiative, passed in November 2016 and raised the city sales tax from 8 percent to 8.5 percent. It was intended to fund a new police station and library but also cover potential cost overruns for the pool, noted City Manager Marcela Piedra.
"Given our extreme heat a pool becomes a necessity and people criticize El Centro for not having one, so we have to recognize people here love to recreate outdoors," said Piedra. "For a lot of people they have other priorities: graffiti, the homeless, more police or the impact of an increase on CALPIRG (public employee pensions)--something we still grapple with yet drives some cities to bankruptcy."
The $11 million in bond funds could not be spent on anything but the pool because it originated before the state terminated redevelopment agencies later in 2011 and when the bond was issued it was project specific, noted Piedra.
The local redevelopment agencies previously permitted by the state allowed municipalities to use some property tax revenue to fund certain projects.
"When we issued the bonds everything was great but then Gov. Jerry Brown attempted to dissolve the RDAs and the redevelopment agencies filed law suit against California but didn't prevail," she said. "At the time there was a state deficit ($25 billion) so at that point it froze the RDA operation
and our bonds."
Originally, the idea was to build a competition pool but then a case of mission creep expanded the concept into an entire recreation complex along Adams Ave. now comprising the Martin Luther King Jr. Sports Pavilion, the Conrad Harrison Youth Center and the Sidewinder Skate Park.
But if not for the obstinacy of the state, the city could have had a pool six years ago, remarked Pete Rodriguez, a city Parks Commission chairman from 2010 to 2016.
"The $11 million was sufficient to cover the cost of a pool at the time," said Rodriguez. "People wanted something similar to The Plunge but the city decided it wanted a larger facility that included the Pavilion."
Yet when Jerry Brown was elected governor in 2010 the state was still reeling financially from the 2007-09 recession and as part of budget balancing strategies the redevelopment agencies were dissolved.
El Centro's bonds languished for several years because then-city Manager Ruben Duran feared a law suit from the state, noted Rodriguez. However, the project could have been completed earlier had Duran had not delayed, he added.
"The city put a priority on other recreational projects but still wanted a pool," he explained. "So they then went with Plan B, but the question was, how do we fund it?"
The Pavilion opened in December 2014. A year later Council Member Jason Jackson was appointed mayor and along with a city council contingent visited Sacramento to recover the city's captive funds.
"It was a positive moment because all kinds of things were getting done," Rodriguez said. "Then they decided to put Measure P on the ballot. But that's where the battle is now, because they decided to add the lazy river for seniors, a kiddie pool and a barbecue area. Eventually they phased in other facilities."
Jackson noted the California Department of Finance had frozen not only the original $11 million bond but the two other bonds totaling $25 million for recreation.
Jackson said he reached out to state Sen. Ben Hueso (D-40th) and the two negotiated with the Department of Finance.
"We were in danger of never having a pool," said Jackson. "We made a compromise of not fighting for the other two bonds (totaling the $25 million) if California released the original $11miilion. But it was contingent on getting the rest of the council to agree and we were happy to walk away with the original bond."
Jackson also stressed pool construction would have been expedited except city staff wanted public input and four public hearings were held that delayed the process almost another year.
"But we're excited to be moving dirt," said Jackson. "By this time next year we'll be swimming in our new pool."
Rodriguez pointed out the aquatic center will require lighting all around and a crew of 30 to run it.
"I'd like to see a project-labor agreement reached where locally based builders are contracted because they'd get it done on time and under budget," he said. "I know Mayor Walker will make it happen. She's done everything to move this forward."
Piedra added it was critical to get public input, which is why the city created a place for comment on the pool on the city Facebook page.
"We got 300 comments from our Facebook page and that's why the concept of the pool enlarged," she said. "The public wanted water slides, but just one costs $800,000 to a million dollars. So we decided to design the infrastructure to accommodate the slide at a future date. But the main thing, the biggest public comment, was allowing for a competition pool. We enlarged from the initial six lanes to eight."
Along with designer Kinley-Horn and general contractor Hamill Construction Inc., the city crafted a pre-qualification process.
"We hired Erickson Hall--they're an extension of the city," said Piedra. "They make sure the contractor is building the project on time and according to the design plan."
With construction underway, a pool to cool off in soon will no longer be a mirage for El Centro residents who endure summer temperatures often exceeding 110 degrees.