October 21, 2022
Lopez pool plan is making waves
Kathryn Wheeler

Imagine a swimming pool—right here—in the center of Lopez Island, a six-minute walk up the road from the school. A grassroots nonprofit organization has been working toward that goal for several years and anticipates breaking ground soon; meanwhile concerns remain among some residents. (Amy Nelson photo © 2022)

October 21, 2022
Lopez pool plan is making waves
Kathryn Wheeler

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On Lopez Island, in the heart of the San Juan archipelago, water is integral to everything. It provides sustenance and enables recreation and transportation, and is the defining feature of a place whose culture is rooted in its separation from the bustle of the mainland. For most of its 2,800 full-time residents and growing numbers of visitors, crossing the water is how they make their way to and from the island.

Now, the community has a new focus on water, in the form of an effort to build a swimming pool—a plan that has won support but also raised concerns among some residents. At issue are costs, environmental impacts and even the island’s own style of quality of life.

Friends of Lopez Island Pool (FLIP) has raised 80% toward a total goal of about $8 million to build and operate a swimming pool. The nonprofit plans to break ground in the coming weeks and expects to be finished by fall of 2023. In the words of FLIP board member Asha Lela, “A time of rejoicing is coming soon as ‘all the ducks are in a row.’ ”

To some on Lopez, this may feel like a recurring story, with visions for a pool going back at least three decades ago. After years of intensive fundraising, FLIP believes it now has the donor support and finely tuned plan to build a pool that is energy- and budget-efficient, and can meet the needs of the changing Lopez environment. 

Of its $6.5 million already raised, the Washington Department of Commerce has provided three grants totaling $1.745 million. Residents with island addresses have donated $3.31 million, 73% of that in donations of less than $250. 

FLIP’s Executive Director Anne Marie MacPherson, a capital campaign manager hired for her fundraising expertise, declined to identify its major donors, noting that “Many of the larger donors have given anonymously because they want to be a part of the community as a person, and not seen by how much money they have, [and] we respect their desire to do that quietly.”

As detailed on its website, FLIP plans to build a year-round facility with two saltwater pools—a 25-yard, four-lane lap pool and a superheated learning/therapy pool— having a carbon footprint 50% less than traditional cement/tile pools. Water from a Class A well on-site will be purified by a UV system and used, treated and recirculated. 

MacPherson says the facility has a five-year operating plan developed by Stuart Isaac of Isaac Sports Group, “a nationally recognized aquatic consultant,” and a $510,000 maintenance reserve fund. “When we build it, we can keep the lights on,” she said.

Concerns, for now and future

While support for the pool has grown since its inception, it has also gained opposition, which has emerged more loudly in the past year. Among them, David Bill, a leader of an informal seven-person opposition group of farmers, environmentalists and scientists, asked, “Does an inlander that thinks this isn’t a good idea have any voice in this?”

In June, the group expressed concern about a lack of transparency around the project in a letter to the FLIP board. The focus was on three areas they saw as being overlooked, with the result of “consequential impacts on both current and future generations”:

  • projected energy use of the facility and fuels used
  • carbon footprint of building this facility
  • on-going operational and maintenance costs.

In frequent back-and-forth correspondence with the board, opponents have increasingly expressed the feeling that decisions around the pool have been made without adequate input from the community. They say the board has dodged important questions and avoided important considerations around the design and cost of the pool in an effort to move the project forward as quickly as possible. For their part, Chom Greacen said, “We are looking for an opportunity to really learn about the pool and provide feedback. [The board thinks] by asking questions we are out to destroy the project.”

FLIP claims it has been as transparent as possible by holding many town halls and inviting community members to all board meetings. However, they explain, they do not yet know precisely what the pool will cost, hence are unable to share that information publicly. 

In all capital campaigns, MacPherson said, “You don’t see knowledge about a project until you’re basically at the end.” Because the fundraising process is ongoing and uncertain, it is unclear what amenities can be included in the design, and what the membership fees will be until fundraising is finished.

FLIP board president Bill LeDrew noted a groundbreaking will often set off a swift wave of donations from larger donors who see that the effort is fully underway and are more willing to donate to a cause in action, not just theoretical. FLIP promised that the full expenses of the pool will be released in coming weeks.

The source of funds has been another question. In response, board members emphasized that tax dollars will not pay for the pool. “The board has always been very clear that it will not be a publicly funded pool,” LeDrew said. It will operate exclusively on funds from donors, membership fees and grants. 

“We are here to serve the entire community so as we look at what membership prices might be we are also figuring out the many ways that we can be sure those who cannot afford the full membership price will also be able to access the pool,” MacPherson said. Those calculations “will take probably a couple months still to finalize,” she said.

Elsewhere in the islands, San Juan and Orcas each have fitness centers with combined pool and exercise membership and guest rates. An annual membership at San Juan Fitness Center, for example, costs $85 a month and a guest pass costs $16 a day. An annual membership at the Orcas Island Fitness Center costs $75 a month with a $100 initiation fee; the guest rate is $20 or $15 a day.

Decades-long dream

Until membership costs are announced, residents likely will have questions about the operating costs of the pool and their financial role in it. And while some feel excluded from this decision-making process, the quest for a pool has taken several paths over the years. 

In the 1980s, a group of dedicated swimmers envisioned a local pool as an alternative to having to ferry to Anacortes just to swim laps. According to Micki Ryan, one of the founders of FLIP and a current board member, the idea didn’t come to fruition due to the many funding barriers they encountered.

The question returned on a 1992 ballot for a Parks and Recreation District on Lopez, which would fund and oversee a public pool. The measure, which would have required a one-year, one cent per $1000 property tax levy for construction costs, did not pass. 

Fifteen years later, six women banded together to pursue the idea once more. The group took the nonprofit route and incorporated FLIP in October 2008. By July 2009, FLIP reported that there were 251 supporters of the pool—11% of the island’s population at that time—and hired a design firm to draw up a facility to present to the community.

Despite enthusiasm, it took until 2016 to start a capital fundraising campaign, which has raised roughly $1 million per year. Over time, Ryan said, FLIP expanded its expertise, “conduct[ing] due diligence in every aspect of nonprofit governance, [seeking] expert advice and consultation, and expand[ing] its communications plan.” 

In 2017, FLIP paid to have 109 elementary-age Lopez youth ferried to the Anacortes pool to test their swimming capability. Only 8% of the children passed these Red Cross swim tests. With 92% of children unable to survive in water over their heads, the test was seen as a clear need for island children to learn to swim. According to the Red Cross Swim Lesson Program, by the age of eight, children should already be “perfecting their strokes,” a far-off goal for most Lopez youth. FLIP continued to offer swim tests and lessons through 2019, until the pandemic closed pools down. 

FLIP noted that Lopez School District personnel have expressed interest in incorporating a pool into its programs. “My staff and I see the pool as a critical link in the well-rounded education of our students,” superintendent Ed Murray commented, and physical ed instructor Larry Berg said, “It is critical that our youth learn to swim and develop these potential lifesaving skills, especially living on an island.”

The median age of Lopez Island residents is 60 compared to a statewide median age of around 37. According to FLIP, many seniors have come out in strong support and see the pool as a way to maintain their health as they age. One senior wrote that her “fellow ‘old ladies’ and men yearn along with [her] for exercise that does not get knees, hips and backs aching,” while another wrote “a pool on Lopez would improve mental and physical health for all ages.”

These amenities offer something not otherwise found on an island known affectionately as “Slowpez” for its slow and simple way of life. It is this change—one of the most frequently used words in discussions with both opposers and supporters of the pool—that is perhaps the heart of both concern and excitement. 

The pool offers what some see as an extravagance, which threatens the very nature of the island. David Bill questions, “How can we retain our rural, agricultural quality and not be overwhelmed with amenities and niceties?” He went on to offer other solutions such as having a seasonal pool that operates in warm summer months to avoid heating costs, or continuing to bring residents to Anacortes to learn to swim. 

In emails from supporters prompted by FLIP, many residents expressed a need for the change that the pool promises, seeing it as a way to build community. The pool will “bring the community into a new place of interacting with each other through our love of being in water,” one resident wrote. Pool backers have recognized this need and long positioned FLIP as fulfilling it, with the slogan, “More than just a pool.” FLIP plans to offer “dive-in movie nights,” swim lessons, water-aerobics classes for seniors, and even a rock-wall and water zip-line. 

Those in opposition would like construction delayed until they see their questions fully answered.

Meanwhile MacPherson said FLIP is waiting for building permits, and that “the Phase 1 permit was received but we are in process of clarifying details on the scope.” Contractor Doug Lisser said that the “biggest delay would be the bureaucracy of dealing with San Juan County and the state’s Department of Health,” although he doesn’t foresee any holdups. As of publication, the necessary permits had not been received.

If and when the project is finally finished, one supporter wrote to FLIP, it “will be so quickly integrated into the fabric of our age-diverse community that we will quickly wonder how we lived without the pool.” As to whether the pool will bring the Lopez community together, or further divide it, remains to be seen. 

— Reported by Kathryn Wheeler

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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