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Cali Owings, Published June 01 2013

West Fargo considers building new aquatics center

WEST FARGO – In three years, the West Fargo High School girls’ swim team has grown from 33 athletes to 52.

The growing class of female swimmers is just one group pushing the limits of West Fargo’s only pool at L.E. Berger Elementary School.

That’s why city, school and park board leaders are looking into an aquatics center for the community.

They have a potential site on Veterans Boulevard and project a cost of at least $21 million for a facility with a competition pool, a warm water pool for lessons and fitness, a water park and gym space.

Their proposal is one of the latest attempts to bring an aquatic center to the Fargo-Moorhead area, something the swimming community has been after for more than 10 years.

After the West Fargo coalition behind the proposed aquatic center receives the results of a feasibility study later this summer, it will decide whether to move forward and likely bring a proposal to a public vote.

Demand for more aquatics space comes largely from the area’s swim competitive teams at the high school, college and club levels. Virtually all agree that a competition-only facility isn’t feasible. They know they’ll need community support and recreational water to make an aquatic center a reality.

Earlier efforts to build an aquatics center in Moorhead and Fargo have failed, despite the number of area stakeholders who say they need more pool space.

Surveys among households taken in 2008 and 2012 by the West Fargo Parks District show that indoor aquatics is the No. 1 choice for recreational facilities.

This demand spreads beyond West Fargo. A 2005 study of the sports facilities in Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo and Dilworth found a need for more community recreation centers and indoor pools.

Surveys from the YMCA indicate that services do not meet demand for aquatics programs.

The number of bodies is overflowing in the YMCA’s evening water classes, said Britt Selbo, aquatics director.

More than 1,100 kids take swimming lessons each week at the Y’s two locations.

Though the Y could lose lesson clients or lap swimmers if another aquatic center opens, Selbo said it would definitely benefit the community to have another facility.

At L.E. Berger, pool manager and longtime coach Marsha Dahl makes do with the space though she’s concerned about maintaining quality.

Teams are creative with their workouts. Less-experienced swimmers practice in the diving well while the remaining group uses the lanes.

“We’re hanging in there and doing the best we can with it,” she said.

More than a ‘box of water’

The potential aquatics center in West Fargo must meet the needs of many groups – families, athletes and seniors.

“It has to be more than just a box of water for competitive swimming,” said Mark Lemer, business manager for West Fargo Schools.

The coalition will solicit community input, Lemer said, to “make sure we have all the necessary components in the plan so if it does go to a vote it will pass.”

Competitive swimming, lessons, therapy and recreation are the four pillars of a successful aquatics center, said Lance Bergstrom, a Fargo eye doctor who leads a private group that wants to bring an aquatics center to the area.

Williston broke ground earlier this year on a $71.9 million aquatic center funded through a 1-cent sales tax. Set to open in 2014, it features many of what advocates are asking for here – competitive and recreational water, gyms and other fitness equipment.

“We’re lagging way behind,” Bergstrom said.

State-level competition

The potential to host state tournaments is another factor behind the push for an aquatic center.

None of the area’s aquatics facilities can accommodate a state-level tournament for high school or club teams, said Tracy Roche, president of the F-M Gators Swim Club.

Families travel to Bismarck or Minneapolis to find competition-level facilities. Roche said hosting swimming competitions in the Fargo-Moorhead area would be a boost for hotels and restaurants.

While a competitive aquatics center might put Bismarck and West Fargo in bidding wars to host state tournaments, Bismarck Aquastorm Coach Jeff Steele said he supported the potential project.

“The more good water we have in our area, the more competition we’re going to attract from other areas,” he said.

‘Financial drain’

Many groups would use an aquatics facility, but even popular pools lose money.

The main concern with building a new facility in West Fargo is the ongoing cost, said Justin Germundson, business manager for the West Fargo Parks District.

“We don’t want to build this big facility and end up losing a half-million dollars every year,” he said.

A study commissioned by a group looking to bring an aquatics center to Moorhead in 1998 projected quarter-million dollar operating losses per year.

To Steele, who saw four athletes from his Bismarck program go on to Division I college swimming programs, the costs are worth it.

“The benefits of having your whole community being able to use (an aquatics center) certainly outweigh that,” Steele said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 451-5710