Walla Walla Community Moves to Restore Public Pool

Lorah Steichen

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Illustration by MaryAnne Bowen

Despite the fact that temperatures in Walla Walla are known to spike above 100 degrees Fahrenheit each summer, the community has no access to a public pool facility, which could provide escape from the sweltering heat. 

With the exception of Jefferson Park Pool, a shallow pool open only to those 10 years old and younger, Walla Walla has been without a publicly accessible aquatic facility since the closure of Memorial Pool in 2006. Rebuild Memorial Pool, a committee of concerned citizens, is working to remodel and reopen Memorial Pool in order to provide a public pool for Walla Walla.

“There are public pools in almost every community around here, and most of them are substantially smaller than Walla Walla,” said committee member and alumna, Director of Advancement Services Becky Kennedy, ’96.

The city closed down Memorial Pool in 2006 because it lacked the funds necessary to repair the aging facility. Since then, there has been a slew of efforts, including three separate bond initiatives that have tried and failed to bring a public pool facility back to Walla Walla. In order to ensure the success of their effort, the current committee to rebuild Memorial is using a revised approach from past endeavors.

“The primary difference is that this is a much smaller project than previous attempts to rebuild some sort of aquatic facility. So that’s one difference: the scale,” said alumnus, committee member and Assistant Swim Coach Chris Bendix, ’12. “Another difference is that this is not a complete rebuild or starting from scratch; it’s repurposing the existing facility with some additions, which is both more cost effective and more practical [in terms of] getting the community on board for it. It’s not a huge water park. It’s just revamping and rebuilding the pool as it already exists.”

Although past efforts to bring back a public pool have been unsuccessful, the committee hopes that this simplified approach will appeal to community members.

“I’ve seen community pool proposals come and go over the years, and this is, hands down, the best one because it recycles an already existing facility and because I’m just a really big fan of the good old-fashioned swimming pool where fun, fitness and imagination meet,” said Associate Professor of Politics Aaron Bobrow-Strain in an email. “All the previous proposals were too focused on Disney-fied bells and whistles. This is a proposal for a pool, and pretty much just a pool. That appeals to me as a taxpayer, a parent and as someone who cares about fitness and creativity.”

The group plans to construct the pool with the funds from private donors, with the hope that it will be publicly maintained and operated by the City of Walla Walla Parks and Recreation department.

“They have the infrastructure. They have buildings and copy machines and human resources, and not only do we not have it; we don’t want to fundraise for that part too,” said Kennedy.

In addition to the resources that the Parks and Recreation department have to manage a public pool facility, they also have the necessary experience.

“It’s kind of an expertise thing … It would be possible to have a board of overseers and an aquatics director that managed the facility, but that’s a lot of work, and the city has experience with that and has done that before. So from a managerial point of view, it makes more sense to have the city do it,” said Bendix.

While the rebuild committee has chosen a minimalist approach to the pool remodel, the City of Walla Walla Parks and Recreation Director Jim DuMont expressed doubt regarding the plans.

“In my opinion a city this size and in this climate needs a water facility that serves the public need. That is why we have attempted to solve this issue since before Memorial Pool closed in 2006 … Whatever you build you have to be able to afford to operate,” said DuMont. “The proposals before included components that would serve and attract ages from 1-100, so the facility could generate adequate revenue to offset expenses. The current proposal does not do that in my opinion.”

Despite this sentiment, many community members believe that the effort to provide a publicly accessible pool facility addresses larger social problems facing the community than simply a lack of pool space. Advocates of the Rebuild Memorial Pool effort target youth as an important beneficiary of public pools.

“I’m doing this as a community activist … I am very concerned about the lack of activities for middle and high school students,” said Kennedy.

Committee and community members alike have indicated a need for increased public spaces for young people within the Walla Walla community.

“In my neighborhood growing up, public swimming pools and beaches and the programs that were based there were a lifeline. They were a safe place for me, and they kept me and a lot of other kids out of trouble. A pool may seem like it costs a lot, but what if we weigh that against all the money we put into policing, prosecuting and incarcerating kids? A pool is a bargain,” said Bobrow-Strain.

The committee is currently in the process of finalizing their business plan. Once this is complete, the group will be able to begin more concrete conversations with the city and serious fundraising efforts. In terms of how much funds will be needed, it is still partially up-in-the-air.

“We don’t have a number yet, but I’m willing to say substantially less than the prior bond efforts,” said Kennedy.

The committee to rebuild Memorial Pool hopes to have the facility up and running by the summer of 2015. In the meantime, the group would like to see Whitman College students get involved with the cause.

“I have this idea that it would be really cool to have a couple student interns as a part of a class, a research project, to help us with this effort. I think it would go a long way even, you know, just to have any support from Whitman students,” said Kennedy.

More information on how to get involved is available at memorialpool.org.

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