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Idaho Falls Post Register
Rhonda Newman remembers block-spanning lines for the Wes Deist Aquatic Center's 1987 grand opening.
"It was packed all the time, at least for the first five years," she said.
Newman was a lifeguard then. She never left, and has since become manager.
Public crowds didn't stick around, however, as the indoor pool fell into disrepair amid changing swimmer preferences.
Center administrators gradually shifted programming to a new user base full of swim teams and kids seeking lessons. But maintenance issues remain; the pool has become a talking point for mayoral and city council candidates as the Nov. 7 election approaches.
The dehumidification system can't adequately cycle warm, chemical-laden air out of the building. Rust is scrubbed weekly from metal fixtures as maintenance costs stack faster than they should.
It's time for the community to decide what it wants to do with the pool, Idaho Falls Parks and Recreation Director Greg Weitzel said.
"I believe the can has been kicked down the road for so many years we're kind of in a pickle. Band-Aids won't keep it together much longer," Weitzel said. "What's the vision going forward? Do we reinvest or rebuild?"
Center construction initiated in 1986 after Idaho Falls voters approved a $1.65 million bond measure, according to city records. The facility, finished the following year, cost $1.7 million; the difference likely came from general city funds.
Back then, the classic "L-shaped" lap pool was sought after. People paid $1 admission to swim freely, or take advantage of the lanes.
That's not the case anymore, Newman said. Since the turn of the century, kids and families have taken to more "fun-focused" attractions, such as the Rexburg Rapids water park or McCowin Park splash pad that opened in Ammon last year.
"They want the excitement - that's where everybody's going," Newman said. "We've added slides and flotation devices to the free swims, but they're still not that busy, and they used to be huge."
As free swim popularity declined, pool administrators filled more hours with swim teams and lessons.
The center saw 117,854 swimmers in 2016, according to Parks and Recreation data. There were 2,293 lap swimmers, 19,124 people taking lessons, 20,039 membership holders, 27,656 free swimmers and 36,113 swim team members.
During summer, the pool is booked from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. as teams from a variety of age groups and affiliations use the pool.
With the deck and bleachers already packed during district meets, Newman said the sport's popularity is likely to increase when it becomes a state-sanctioned high school sport next year.
Athletes typically prefer different pool conditions to recreational, or leisure swimmers. The former, high-exertion group prefers a pool to be around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, while the latter generally prefers 86 to 90 degree water. Newman said she receives complaints the pool is too cold and too hot every day.
Matching temperatures to user groups is difficult because the pool usually takes at least a day to adjust, Recreation Superintendent PJ Holm said.
"We've received some letters and emails that said we we're going to kill kids because we were overheating them so much," he said. "Also, heating up 300,000 gallons of water definitely isn't energy efficient. It's like a thermostat - you want it at one setting."
There also are space constraints. Jake Stanislao swam at the center as a middle schooler. Now, he coaches three teams and provides private lessons. There's often nine to 12 kids per lane during practice, Stanislao said.
"It's super crowded and swimmers are usually running each other over, especially during peak hours," he said.
Apart from logistical difficulties, there are the infrastructural challenges. There have been many upgrades over the years - including a new scoreboard, hot tub and chemical treatment system - but dehumidification remains an issue.
Two large dehumidifiers remove excess moisture, chemicals and warmth from the building so new air can be cycled in, but the system has been plagued with technical issues since the beginning, Newman said.
The center is on its third pair of dehumidifiers. Employees have been searching 18 months for a leak in one half of the latest pair, installed more than 20 years ago.
It sits inactive in a pump house outside the center. Boxes of freon, a refrigerant, are stacked in front of the apparatus. When active, the dehumidifier runs through $30,000 of freon per year, Holm said. Like a refrigerator, the dehumidifier shouldn't require any freon replacement.
Ideally, both dehumidifiers would be active when necessary to maintain the building's ideal air characteristics. Outages result in more rapid building decay.
Lapsed maintenance was exasperated by a joint aquatic-recreation center bond push that voters soundly rejected in 2003, Newman said.
"They (city officials) didn't want to upgrade here because they were going to go bigger and better, but we haven't been able to do that. So now we have to fix all these things, and if we could've done some preventive maintenance during the first 20 years, we wouldn't have these huge issues," she said.
Newman said about $600,000 has been spent on maintenance over the last six years. But rust, the byproduct of excess humidity, remains visible all over the center's metal surfaces, a phenomenon Stanislao can attest to — "I've worked up some elbow grease scrubbing those lockers."
The dehumidifiers and duct system are covered in rust. One section of ductwork directly above one of the appliances is completely corroded; there's a crack from one end to another.
Door jambs are rusted. On one of them, a section of pool noodle foam is taped over a sharp piece of metal. Ceiling bolts are speckled orange-red, as is a diving board frame installed in June.
Windows are at risk of coming loose from rusted frames, as are ceiling drain sections above the pool, Newman said.
"Two of them have fallen in the last 10 years," she said. "They rust away and fall. If they landed on someone it would do some real damage."
The building's exterior, meanwhile, is cracked and warped from interior moisture. Two years ago, several feet of stucco separated from the exterior, exposing rusty bolts inside the wall.
"Those walls have absorbed a lot of water over the last 30 years, and now it's coming through," Holm said.
Parks and Recreation officials received a $150,000 quote to fix the walls. Two new dehumidifiers would cost about $800,000 to $1 million, Weitzel said. He's concerned the remaining functioning dehumidifier unit will break, forcing a center closure.
Weitzel said major problems could probably be fixed for a few million dollars, but the community and city need to decide what to do with the building.
"We need a formal planning phase for the future of aquatics in Idaho Falls, and it needs to be a community-driven process," he said. "To the people using it - what do you want to see? What are your goals?"
The city needs to conduct surveys as well as hold public meetings and info-gathering sessions, Weitzel said.
Options include renovating the current facility, rebuilding it or working on another aquatic-recreation center hybrid. One center possibly could be used for athletic or competitive swimming, while another could reflect a recreational, splash park-type facility in order to accommodate diverging user groups.
The Parks and Recreation department will work on a new comprehensive master plan next year. Weitzel believes the aquatic center should be high on the list of priorities.
"The amount of people coming through the doors every year alone makes it an important facility," Weitzel said. "But it's probably five to six years past the time we really needed to reinvest or rebuild, so we need to make a decision. When the car has reached a certain lifespan do you put in a new engine or get a new car?"
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