Since Clemens Community Pool opened to the public in December 1960, countless Philomath children have braved its waters to learn how to swim.
Prior to the pool’s opening, too many youngsters in the region had lost their lives to drowning and Rex and Ethel Clemens had seen enough. The lumber business had been kind to the humanitarians to give them the means to contribute to their community. So, they made money available for the construction of a pool.
Not limited only to the school, the couple wanted the pool to be available to all. Some folks use the pool for lap swimming, others for water aerobics. Hundreds of children have been involved in a local club program and high-schoolers have raced as part of a competitive sports team. And there have been all of those swim lessons.
In one way or another, a large number of Philomath’s long-established residents have some sort of personal connection to the pool.
But now, Clemens Community Pool’s future seems to be at a crossroads. In recent weeks, a major pool renovation project hit the brakes after a contractor determined it was too risky to replace the tank because of unknown geotechnical factors underneath. The rest of the plan remains in limbo while school officials try to come up with a new plan.
At the Aug. 18 Philomath School Board meeting, the Benton Community Foundation asked for the return of a $734,000 gift that had been made out of a fund that it oversees and had been designated specifically for the renovation project.
While all this was happening, pool supervisor Ellen Luke submitted her resignation. The high school chose to part ways with Marissa Eng, who had served as the Warriors’ swim team coach. The Corvallis Aquatic Team recently announced it was suspending its Clemens Division squad.
What does it all mean? What exactly needs to fall into place for the pool to be fixed? Could a future city parks and recreation department become a reality and factor into the pool’s future? Could closure become a reality?
“I think we’re going to have a high school pool for years to come. If we’re going to have a pool in Philomath, it’s going to be at the high school. That’s the way I look at it.”
Those are the words of Philomath School Board chair Jim Kildea, answering questions Friday afternoon during an interview with the Express. Meanwhile, the interim superintendent who has been on the job for less than two months tries to come up with answers.
“I did hear relatively clearly that in the next 120 days, come up with something and don’t drag us out nine months to a year,” Buzz Brazeau said in reference to his school board’s wishes. “Come up with a plan. And I think that’s critical.”
For those that use the pool, Brazeau said it’s safe and it will remain open during this time frame of exploration.
“Shortly after he came on, he said, ‘you know, I think we should keep the pool open for a period of time and figure out better with a higher degree of confidence what needs to be done for the pool,’” Kildea said about Brazeau. “I said we can do that as long as we don’t compromise student safety at any point in time.”
Asked if the pool is safe, Brazeau didn’t hesitate with his response.
“Oh yeah — I’ve never been told anything as to why it’s not safe,” he said. “The pool is safe. There are issues with regards to long-term viability. … If we developed an issue that we don’t foresee that in some way compromises the pool, then we’d have no choice than to shut it down. But it would be that way if it was a brand new pool.”
Just recently, a new flow meter was installed to satisfy a deficiency that had been identified by the state health department. Brazeau said that because of the pool’s age, the part had to be custom-made.
For its immediate future, district officials say Clemens Community Pool will operate as usual with no cutbacks in programs. That includes swimming lessons and a high school team.
“The board’s understanding is and our operating principle is that we’re not giving up any programs,” Kildea said. “Are we going to have a swim team? Well, we better as far as I’m concerned. There are no plans to do away with any programs.”
The CAT-Clemens program in Philomath did pull out for the 2019-20 season based on financial and logistical reasons, the organization’s business manager Rhonda Soule' said. That wasn’t a cut from the Philomath side but a decision from CAT.
“As far as swim coach, that’s going to be filled by somebody else and then we are going to have a swim team,” Kildea said. “We’re not losing any programs whatsoever and if people in the community hear otherwise, I’d like to hear about it and I think the board would want to hear about it, too.”
An immediate issue involves Luke’s resignation. The Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division outlines various state requirements for public pools, including certification standards for operators. At the Philomath pool, Luke is the only one with those qualifications.
“We have to make some arrangements to cover that,” Brazeau said about replacing Luke, who will work her final day Aug. 31. “We have a couple of options … I will be working on that next week.”
So what happens after Luke works her last day?
“Eventually, I’ll have someone who is pool certified,” Brazeau said. “We as a district paid (for training) for someone to be certified that we haven’t used yet. We just have to find the right person to use it on.”
Until the district can find that person, Brazeau said an option could be to hire a pool service.
“We’ll probably go to one of these services to help cover that,” Brazeau said. “Then we’ll get that person certified is what I believe we need to get that done.”
Kildea, who has been on the school board for a decade and involved in the school district at some level for 15 years, can speak to the pool’s recent history. For example, the 2012 Philomath High rebuild, which was financed through voters’ approval of a bond measure, did not include a pool renovation.
“We never had the pool as far as the scope for the bond measure, so it’s always been an ongoing set of challenges to keep it running and fixing things that need fixing,” Kildea said. “You get leaks, you get pumps that break and boilers that don’t work — operational issues.”
As the years went by, however, the Band-aid repairs piled up while money got tighter. Former superintendent Melissa Goff and her team, along with a pool committee that had been organized, then started talking about what needed to happen.
“They just kinda said, ‘hey, timeout, are we ever going to get ahead of this?’” Kildea said about the thinking that developed. “They did a really good assessment of what we need top to bottom, not only with the pool itself.”
The locker rooms needed major attention — the men’s locker room is now closed to the public because it’s not usable — and modernized decking had been identified as a must.
So why wasn’t the pool included in the high school’s 2012 renovation plans?
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“Good question … what I do remember is the facilities planning committee did their work and the pool was not something they looked at and I don’t know if that was intentional or an oversight,” Kildea said. “The focus was on the buildings and not so much on the pool.”
Kildea referred to the “bond promise” that went out to the voters and based on that, the district needed to do absolutely everything on that list.
“The pool was not on that list,” he said. “We could’ve put new football grandstands on the bond measure, we could’ve put a turf football field in there but we thought those things would kill it (with voters). We were very deliberate about keeping things off that list that might seem frivolous or not necessary. The pool was just not ever on that radar.”
But again, as time passed, the pool moved up the district’s priority list.
“It’s been an ongoing maintenance item for a number of years but there were always things that were a higher priority in the old high school building,” Kildea said. “Now when you’ve got all of those taken care of, it’s now time to get to this.”
Eventually, Benton Community Foundation came in with the large grant to make fixes necessary to extend the pool’s life for another decade while those in charge had time to come up with a long-term plan.
After receiving no bids to work on the pool project, Gerding Builders agreed to come on board. In June, those working on the project relayed concerns over unknown outcomes involving what would happen with the vessel after draining the pool.
“Buzz and I started talking about how we don’t want to get into a mode of you drain the pool and then you start doing some work on it and then something goes wrong,” Kildea said. “And oh by the way, it’s going to be a million and a half dollars to fix it.”
Myrtha Pools, a commercial pool builder that has done work at Osborn Aquatic Center, has been mentioned by Brazeau as a business that might have the solutions that Clemens Community Pool needs.
But can the school district finance these major repairs to a swimming pool that in December will reach age 60?
“In my mind, at least to this point, I think that it makes some fiscal sense at about $1 million; it makes a little less sense the further you get away from $1 million,” Brazeau said. “It probably gets to the point of not making sense at a million and a half.”
If the project went over the $1.5 million mark, would he support moving forward?
“As I sit here right now with the information that I have, I’d say probably not,” Brazeau said. “But is there a way that I would recommend at a million and a half? Well, if somebody came in and some of the warranties were past 25 years and things of that nature, I probably would. There’s so many variables but I certainly got the message that the board’s intent was for me to continue on with our efforts to find the solution.”
At the Aug. 18 school board meeting, Brazeau shared details about individuals and companies that have come onto his radar in terms of finding solutions. Specifically, Myrtha representative Mike Mintenko suggested a steel/PVC pool liner that would have a life expectancy of at least 25 years. Brazeau has also received input from a handful of others.
“Those are the people that are going to give us an idea in regards to most of the issues that we uncovered with regards to potential geothermal challenges that might be under the pool,” Brazeau said. “Do we have water issues under the pool or not?”
Brazeau expects a visit from Ryan Nachreiner of Water Technology Inc., within the next few weeks to consider Philomath’s situation after consulting with his contact at Anderson Pools, a company that has looked at the Clemens pool in the past.
“He believes it’s very reasonable for us to be able to complete an evaluation and have together a reasonable potential for a solution that would cure the issues for the pool in 90 to 120 days,” Brazeau said.
But it’s that bottom line that will ultimately play a role in the next move.
“The only thing that might get in the way is if it’s a $5, $6 or $7 million repair or something — that’s going to be tough,” Kildea said. “But if we’ve already had support at three-quarters of a million and maybe it’s a million or a million and a half to get there, that’s manageable, that’s doable. We could probably close that gap.”
School board member Anton Grube expressed concern that if a renovation does end up with a price tag at around $1.5 million that all of the project’s other components be considered. In other words, if that much money is invested, a 25-year life expectancy must include more than the pool vessel.
Another board member, Karen Skinkis, wanted information about the pool’s short-term plan.
“We have an issue right now with the men’s locker room and we’ve addressed that by being able to use the men’s locker room in the high school,” Brazeau said. “The anticipation is we will be operating in the same way we have in the past. That’s the expectation and as I’m understanding with the direction from the board, keep it open, keep it open.”
Grube also suggested that the pool committee that had been formed continue to be involved.
Kildea’s vision of Philomath’s swimming pool of the future doesn’t involve the city or any other outside entity. He believes it will always remain a part of the local high school. An idea about the possible formation of a parks and rec district in Philomath has circulated for a few years and there seems to be a willingness at the city level to at least discuss it. Kildea just doesn’t see that happening.
“I know there’s been some talk about, well, maybe we get a recreation district formed … but that’s really never gone anywhere,” Kildea said. “After years and years, it’s clear the city has no interest in the pool. So if we were to talk about a pool someplace else, I don’t think the city has any interest.”
Kildea points to the expectation that school enrollment will increase with new housing development on the local horizon and he sees that as an asset moving forward.
“If you were to ask me if we’re going to always have a performing arts program, I’d say ‘yeah, I don’t ever see that going away.’ It’s just one of those things that the community is really proud of and supportive of,” Kildea added. “The school has all the history, we’ve got all the support, it’s kinda of an institution, if you will.”
The possibility that the pool could be decommissioned and closed had been discussed as an option at a July pool committee meeting. It’s not something that’s under consideration, at least from Kildea’s point of view.
“We were talking the other night about what if the pool were to close and what are the options and frankly, I don’t even want to go there,” Kildea said. “The intention is we want the pool to be operating. If we discover it’s a $5 million fix, then we’re probably talking about it. … I don’t see any reason to talk about potential closure, because that’s not what we want to do.”
The school board expects to hear a presentation about the next step in December or January.
“The board and the district have been supporting the pool for 60 years,” Kildea added. “We want an ongoing functioning, vibrant pool and swimming program. That’s what we want.”