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Helmut Schmidt, Published August 20 2013

West Fargo governments support idea of aquatic center; now they have to figure out how to pay for it

WEST FARGO – The easy part is knowing what you want. The hard part is paying for it.

That’s what officials from the West Fargo School District, Park Board and city will have to work through in the next few months to determine how to pay for and who should operate a proposed community fitness and aquatic center.

The three groups met Tuesday at the city Public Works offices to go over a feasibility study for the facility.

The price tag for the project ranges from a low of $21.2 million for a basic facility, to as high as $30.3 million for a top-flight regional venue, according to a study by Isaac Sports Group of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Water Technology Inc. of Beaver Dam, Wis.

“I think we have the opportunity for something really special,” City Commissioner Duane Hanson said. Now, the parties have to get into a room “and figure out how we can make this thing work.”

“We’ll all have to be on the same page on this … or it will be a struggle,” Park Board member Todd Rheault said.

Stu Isaac, president of Isaac Sports Group, said the facility would benefit the city by improving the area’s quality of life, and by being an economic development asset, turning the area into a destination.

The economic impact of the facility is estimated to be $1.6 million to $2.85 million annually in direct spending for the city, depending on its size.

The overall economic impact in the area could be $2.6 million to $4.6 million a year, the study estimates.

Also, many groups have needs the facility could fill, particularly the park and school districts, Isaac said.

The School District needs water for its competitive swim teams, and fitness and educational programs.

The Park District needs recreational space, both in terms of water and gyms, as well as office and other community spaces.

There is also an “aquatic community” of people with different needs, both recreational and competitive. And senior citizens could use a place for fitness and recreation.

“It’s a very inclusive facility. It’s designed that way,” Isaac said.

The site being considered is a 10-acre parcel owned by the Park District just east of Freedom Elementary, south of Interstate 94.

“This is the first time that all the parties have been involved from the start” in any of ISG’s studies, Isaac said. “I think there’s great potential. I really do. This can happen. … I think this community is ripe for it, because you have everybody at the table.”

Dr. Lance Bergstrom, the leader of UP Aquatics, a private nonprofit group that wants an aquatic facility built in the area, said he could sense that the community leaders were catching on to the potential of the project.

“It puts West Fargo on the map, in my opinion,” Bergstrom said. “I think this is the swimming equivalent of the Fargodome.”

He said his group is ready to raise funds, and if the three governments decide to go with the more expensive “upgrade” facility, $6 million to $7 million in private donations are possible.

All they have to do is hammer out how the rest of the money will be raised and who will run it.

“From the private sector, we are ready to go,” Bergstrom said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a difference” for the next generation.

Superintendent of Schools David Flowers said the project is best done collaboratively, so the governments don’t duplicate their efforts in trying to provide amenities such as pools or gyms.

Sometime in the next five years, the West Fargo School District will need to have more competitive water, Flowers said. Yet, at the same time, the school board will likely have to ask taxpayers for bonding authority to build more schools if enrollment keeps growing.

He said adding a $10 million pool to 2011’s $82.5 million school bond issue could have sunk that plan with voters.

“I’m very attracted to the synergy that comes from a collaborative project,” Flowers said.

Mayor Rich Mattern said the groups need to figure out how much the school and park districts would have to spend to run their programs, then figure out what the added costs are.

In the meantime, the burden is on the Park District to move the project ahead, he said.

“They’re going to have to take the bull by the horns,” Mattern said. “We’re a growing community and this would be something exciting,”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583