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The Clemens Community Pool renovation project that school district officials expected to begin in early August appears to be facing serious questions based on conversations coming out of an advisory group’s meeting Tuesday afternoon.

The contractor hired for the job informed the Clemens Community Pool Advisory Committee June 26 that the facility’s vessel, or tank, could not be safely replaced and “was off the table as far as a construction project.”

Those were the words of Ellen Luke, pool supervisor, during Tuesday’s advisory committee meeting. So now, questions exist on just where everything stands with the project and what options exist moving forward.

“I think we now know some of the things we didn’t know and that’s always a good thing, especially when you’re talking about infrastructure and you’re talking about physical plants,” Luke said.

As for a possible pool closure — a question of great immediate interest to its regular users — it appears the facility will stay open for now until the school board directs otherwise.

“I have no intention of recommending to the board that we close the pool,” interim superintendent Philip Brazeau said Wednesday morning. “I don’t anticipate making any recommendations to the board nor do I anticipate the board making a recommendation for a closure at this point in time.”

Brazeau believes the right answer lies out there somewhere but wants time to consult with facilities director Joey DiGiovannangelo and other sources to collect the bits of information that will be needed to come up with a recommendation.

“I’m trying right now to buy myself some time so I have the opportunity to do some research and provide some options both to the board and the community,” Brazeau said. “I know it’s had issues and things, but I think it’s a tremendous asset and I’d like to try to find a potential solution.”

The school district last year drafted a timeline that outlined various steps leading up to identifying a location for a new community pool, passing a bond, seeking funding partners and building the facility in the 2025-28 period.

Gerding Builders project executive John Vorhees said his company did exploratory work on the site, interviewed a pool consultant and went through the plans and priorities. The conclusion led only to big unknowns with geo-technical information — basically, what’s going on under the pool.

“There’s just enough unknowns to make it a high-risk operation,” Vorhees said Wednesday morning. “Pools — they call them a vessel for a reason if you think about buoyancy and that kind of thing. The spring underneath the pool, it’s a complete unknown (factor).”

Voorhees added that as the situation with the pool unfolds, it could be compared to the peeling of an onion with new information coming up as the project goes deeper and deeper.

According to school district cost estimates from last year, the target budget for the renovation was $420,500.

“When we went through and priced the priorities in order, there’s enough funds to do everything (else) they need to do,” Voorhees said. “By no means are we stepping away from it or anything like that. … We’ll stick by them and give them the support they need.”

But the question becomes — should the district invest all of that money in the pool if the vessel can’t be fixed?

“The problem that it left us with is this pool needs a number of things, several of them are critical failure points when they stop functioning that if not addressed it won’t matter if we have re-done locker rooms,” Luke said. “And so realistically, is the project viable if you can’t fix the pool?”

The school district established the Clemens Community Pool Advisory Committee in 2018 following a suggestion from then-school board member Shelly Brown to include citizen members in a group to spark new ideas and viewpoints when it comes to the future of the aging facility.

Among those in attendance at the Tuesday committee meeting were Chris Quaka, Benton Community Foundation president and CEO, and David Low, city councilor who is the liaison to the school board.

“We’re not a decision-making group but what we are is an input and idea group to say, ‘OK, we’ve got a lot of problems, how do we help to come up with solutions?” Luke asked the group. “What kind of commentary do you have to take to the school board since the school district is the owner of this facility?”

If the school district truly wanted to replace the vessel, it would need to do an entire reconstruction, which would run into several million dollars, Luke said. Based on the district timeline and wanting to build community partnerships, perhaps the establishment of a city parks and rec district, construction of the pool on the same site does not appear it would be of interest.

“It’s a difficult proposition to invest that much capital in that location for that pool,” Voorhees said Wednesday. “In the order of magnitude, it’s millions of dollars to get it to the facility they want. We’ll continue to work with them with whatever they need.”

Another complication involves the fact that the pool — finished and opened in late 1960 — is grandfathered in under previous permitting standards. An extensive project such as a rebuild would exceed what the district would need permit-wise, Luke said.

The school district did have problems even attracting bidders interested in working on the pool. In fact, DiGiovannangelo said a bid process attracted no interest — three times. At that point, Gerding Builders was contacted to see if they would consider taking a look at the job.

“We really appreciate the work that they do, Ellen especially, she really knows her stuff and is a great asset to the community and the pool itself,” Voorhees said. “It’s a real credit to Ellen and the team to keep the pool going given its age.”

Another piece that factors into the picture involves the pool passing state health inspections. In June, the Oregon Health Authority inspected Clemens Community Pool. Various items previously identified had not been fixed, which Luke said brought a reaction from the health inspector.

“At our June inspection, the health inspector expressed a lot of surprise that nothing’s done yet, which can be a pretty tense moment,” Luke said. “Really all I can do is tell him I don’t know what our timeline is now.”

When pressed further on the issue by a committee member, Luke said, “I feel that he seems to feel very confident in my abilities to maintain this pool in a way that is safe for the public to use.”

Brazeau said if the health department walked in and said they don’t care about a timeline and the pool needs to be shut down for safety reasons, then “I have a bigger issue.”

Luke went on to talk about the top needs for the pool — beyond the vessel — such as a filtration system upgrade and stainless steel gutter boxes that if they fail, would lead to an immediate closure.

The committee’s discussion did eventually end up in the realm of decommissioning the pool. Luke compared it to underground fuel tanks being decommissioned at a gas station.

“If and when this needs to be decommissioned, it would mean removing all material, disposing and sorting that material appropriately, removing a mound of dirt and ground, getting all the pipe out, it’s a very specific procedure and also very expensive,” she said.

The school board is not scheduled to meet again until Aug. 19.

“Now we have to do our due diligence and gather that information so we can get our head around it and the scope of work and how we look to do that,” Brazeau said. “The more information we can gather, the better. I think the worst thing that can happen would be for us to have a knee-jerk to the response that we had (from Gerding Builders). We’re going to look to create a window of time and use that time wisely.”

The Benton Community Foundation in October gifted the pool project fund $734,000 to “fund essential repairs and upgrades needed to keep the pool open and operating for another decade.” Before that announcement, the school board had vowed that it would be necessary to close the pool if the funds couldn’t be secured.

“We need more time to really look at every piece, make sure we’re making educated decisions and have a good plan for the community foundation and for the pool, everything,” Quaka said during the meeting.

Luke said that there are strong feelings in the community about the swimming pool and suggested that information goes out with an honest approach about how the renovation was “really messier than we thought it was going to be” and “what do we want as a community see happen with this going forward.”

The district could then collect information, process it and go from there.

“That’s not for me to give the answers,” she said. “I certainly think that the people of this community want to still have a swimming pool.”

Said Brazeau, “I know Chris (Quaka) said the foundation would do everything they would to help us. The school is going to do everything we can do to support the community.”

Brazeau also said Gerding Builders continues to work with the district going forward.

“They’re continuing to help us get information and really, what I think came out of the first meeting, was knowledge that we were still gathering some information on to find a reasonable scope of work that could go on and help us,” he said. “Gerding is still being a great partner as we look for the right direction to go.”

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