"The water is ready…"

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CUTLINE: Once thought to be a symbol of city government running amok, the Moses Lake Family Aquatic Center is ready to open its doors for a milestone 10th season, having become a city icon and the biggest tourist attraction in city history.

Aquatic center turns 10, set to make a splash again

After 10 years, thousands of visitors and more than a few controversies, the Moses Lake Family Aquatic Center opens the doors to its milestone season Wednesday with a free swim from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.

"The water is ready," said Ray Towry, recreation supervisor of aquatics at the city's parks and recreation department.

With a decade of splishing and splashing fun under the center's belt, those in charge of bringing it to the city are enthusiastic about its future and convinced that building it was the right thing to do.

Wayne Rimple, mayor of Moses Lake during the time of the center's genesis, construction and opening, is emphatic about the effect of the facility on the city.

"The aquatic center is the best thing to ever happen to Moses Lake," he said. "It put us on the map."

Those involved with the center today highlight the fact that though costs were an issue at construction time, the center has remained profitable.

"It's been in the black every year but one," he said, "2001, the year when (anti-tax crusader Tim) Eyman's initiative made minimum wages jump up."

That year, the center was in the red for $26,611. The next year, it was in the black for $26,086, and last year, its net gains jumped to $74,489.

Rimple credits city manager Joe Gavinski and former parks and recreation director Cecil Lee with bringing the center to the city. He said that it was their concern with the deterioration of Swedberg Pool that led to the construction of the aquatic center.

The way Rimple remembers it, Lee's continuous research of trade magazines on recreational facilities led them to look at zero-depth aquatic parks, the name given to aquatic facilities where the water starts at zero depth, "like the walk from the sand to the water on a beach," Rimple said.

At the time, he said, no city west of the Mississippi River had a facility of that kind. The desire to bring one to Moses Lake took a delegation to the Minnesota-Wisconsin border, home of cities owning aquatic centers with such features.

The trip drove home the point that time was running out on Swedberg Pool and that the construction of an aquatic center was the only way to go.

"We were so close to shutting down Swedberg, spending $50,000 in maintenance and repair each year," Rimple said. "If you prorate that over 30 years of use of the pool, that is a lot of money." In 1993, its last year of operation, Swedberg lost $31,000 for the city.

"It was so old, it did not meet a lot of codes," Towry said.

The shape and age of the pool were not the only reasons behind the desire for a change. Attendance at Swedberg had started to decline, the old pool did not have a concession stand and no other attraction than the prospect of jumping on the shallow end and swimming to the deep end, as Rimple put it.

Whatever the reason, Rimple said that the delegation had no problem convincing the rest of city council that it was time to close the book on Swedberg Pool.

Convincing the citizenry would prove to be another story.

"It was the lowest point of my political career," Rimple said of the failing of the bond to finance the aquatic center with additional property taxes in 1992.

"We put together an organization to promote the concept throughout the community," he said. "We held public meetings presenting the concept and the costs, and we felt comfortable that (the bond) would pass. It didn't."

For Rimple, the only thing clear in people's minds was that the bond had not passed. The repercussions of the voters' decision remained and remain murky to some, especially with the voters saying no and the center still having been built.

The 10-year-old question for Rimple is what did the voters say no to.

"I do not and did not try to second-guess people's votes, and how they perceive them. That is the right of the American people" Rimple said. "But as mayor, we put together a ballot, whose first sentence was '"to provide funds to build a pool by means of a bond.

"The question of 'do you want to build it?' was not the issue (of the vote)," he said. "City Council was firmly set on doing this."

However, as Rimple himself acknowledged, a vote is a vote and it was back to the drawing, if not diving, board for the city leaders and their dream of a new pool.

Studies were conducted to determine how feasible would be to pay for an aquatic center using current and future city funds, without jeopardizing any program planned for within five years of the construction of the center.

"There are places to take steps of leadership," said councilman Richard Pearce, who was a councilman back then, as well. "This was one of those places."

Gavinski, Rimple said, came back with what he thought was a proposal to build the center. After extensive studies, and aided by the roaring economy of the early 1990s, it was deemed feasible by the council. Those who had voted no on the bond saw it as the city leapfrogging the voters' will.

A decade later, Rimple still disagrees and struggles to persuade people the center is not a monument to turning a deaf ear.

Parks and recreation director Spencer Grigg said that most of the people who accused the city of not listening to them were people who lived outside city limits and had never seen the ballot to begin with. As far as those who did see it, Rimple is adamant.

"I firmly believed that what we asked the city to do still honored their vote," he said, insisting that the city did not ask constituents for anything more than what they were already providing. "How can I convince people that we adhered to their vote but found other means?"

The other means, Gavinski explained, entailed paying for the bond issue by taking a slice off of sales tax revenue coming from another newcomer to town in the early 1990s: Wal-Mart. Still, some thought it was too big of a leap for the city.

"I thought it was a lot of money to be spending at that particular time," said mayor Ron Covey, then a member of the city's planning commission. "I was unsure of its success, but it turned out to be a terrific asset."

To the tune of $170,000 annually on average, the bond started being paid and in the middle of a city split between proud citizens and residents feeling slighted, the aquatic center started taking shape, until that spring day of 1994 when the facility finally opened.

"We had 4,000 people come that first weekend. The old pool was averaging 1,800 people a month," Rimple recalls. "People lined up for blocks to go into the center. I was going "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

That first year, the attendance at the center was seven times the attendance of the last year of Swedberg, reaching 140,000 people.

"When we started out our goal was to break even," Grigg said. "Making a profit up front was almost unheard of in aquatics."

Now, Gavinski said, doing anything but following Moses Lake's steps is a recipe for disaster in Eastern Washington. "Building a rectangular pool nowadays is a guarantee that it is going to lose money."

With time, though not all wounds have healed, the aquatic center has become a part of Moses Lake.

"People tell me that they may disagree with how we did it, but they are glad we stuck to our guns," Rimple said. "I feel great when I drive by it."

Grigg agreed. "It's been more successful than we ever thought it would be," he said. "There is nothing like it."

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