The Tracy City Council has moved toward creating a long-awaited aquatics center, but if that center is to open within the next few years, the city will have to direct nearly all its limited stream of Measure V money toward the $65 million project.
During a special meeting Tuesday, the council listened to the public’s priorities for Measure V, a half-cent local sales tax approved by voters in 2016. Completing the first phase of Legacy Fields at the north end of town and starting the aquatics center at the southwest edge of town, within the Ellis development, were at the top of the list.
Parks and Recreation Director Brian MacDonald also described a potential $40 million multigenerational recreation center. But the $65 million aquatics center, as well as about $9 million worth of improvements at Legacy Fields — including completion of parking lots, walkways, lighting and one baseball diamond in a cluster of five at the northeastern corner of the sports park — stood out as the priority projects.
The city had most recently reviewed conceptual plans for the aquatics center in November 2019, when Surland Communities LLC, developer of Ellis, presented the city with plans and a projected cost.
Surland is contributing 16 acres and $10 million toward the project and is also taking the lead on design and construction. The developer projected back in November that achieving the full vision of the aquatics center would take $130 million, well beyond the city’s budget of $54 million, which would have included Surland’s contribution. The council concluded that meeting by setting the spending cap at $65 million for a scaled-back center.
The Tracy City Council has reviewed three options for the aquatics park that will be the centerpiece of the Ellis development and rejected all…
On Tuesday, city Finance Director Karin Schnaider reported that Measure V wasn’t producing the anticipated level of revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession. She said that the city has about $18.4 million of Measure V money on hand now. Though the sales tax was originally expected to bring in about $10 million each year, she projects that Measure V will bring in about $7 million a year for at least the next couple of years.
“We do want to caution, though, that we do believe it will still take us at least until a few more years … to get to the full pay-as-you-go for the aquatics center budget,” she told the council.
The council then listened to more than an hour of comments from the public, submitted through email, the city’s WebEx online meeting application, and phone calls. Many urged the city to finish what it started with Legacy Fields, while others said they’ve waited long enough for the city and Surland to build the aquatics center.
Sorting out priorities
Legacy Fields started out with the city providing land and $11.3 million worth of basic infrastructure so that youth sports leagues could fundraise and build their own fields.
Tracy Little League raised enough money to install two baseball diamonds, but the city ended up picking up the bills for eight more diamonds and eight soccer fields after local leagues were mostly unable to raise money for their projects.
The city has gradually spent $33 million, including $10 million in Measure V money, on Legacy Fields.
Marsha McCray, who has been active with the Tracy Tritons Swim Club, noted that while the city developed Legacy Fields, the aquatics center had been kept on hold. Meanwhile, local swimmers on the youth team who had hoped to have a new pool, including her own children, have grown up and moved out of town as the city and Surland haggle over development agreements, costs and construction timelines.
“We’ve been talking about it for 20 years, and every time someone has opposition, we always hear, ‘Now is not the right time,’” She said. “If not now, when we have the money set aside from Measure V to pay for this, then when? After Measure V expires, there will be no more money coming in. We need to do it now.”
Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Young also talked about how the city had redirected money to Legacy Fields, while people campaigned for Measure V so that the city could have money for the aquatics center. Mayor Robert Rickman cut her off after about 15 minutes, noting that the two-hour time limit for the special meeting had passed and the council still had a regular meeting that was scheduled to begin.
The council rearranged its agenda and returned to the special meeting about an hour later and continued to discuss the matter for 2½ hours more. Though the council didn’t take a vote, council members generally agreed that while both Legacy Fields and the aquatics center represent promises made to the community, Legacy Fields had received plenty of funding so far, while the aquatics center had yet to be started.
The council then had to accept that it had only $18.4 million in hand to spend on an aquatics center slated to cost $65 million.
“We may have to come back from the clouds, to reality, and figure out a way to meet the needs of our community in a more realistic way,” Councilwoman Veronica Vargas said, adding that she didn’t approve of taking a piecemeal approach to either Legacy Fields or the aquatics center, but a detailed phased approach could be the best option in this case.
“I believe our community has always been asking us for a pool, a competition pool and a warmup pool,” she said. “I think that should be our priority. However, I would be willing to approve this concept plan, and I would request and direct staff, with support of this council, to figure out a way to phase this project.”
Rickman said he would prefer to start by spending $9 million of the Measure V money on Legacy Fields.
“I do support the aquatics center, but I also support completing what we started. There’s been no secret that I’ve been a huge advocate for Legacy Fields,” Rickman said. “We know we needed fields, soccer fields and baseball fields, very badly. So do we not build anything until we get the $40 million to $50 million …, or do we build it when the money becomes available, like we did with Legacy Fields?
“It’s the same thing with the aquatics center. Do we not build anything until we get $65 million, and that will be 2026 or later, or do we use a phased approach? At least we could show something. We could show a 50-meter pool, or whatever Phase 1 would be,” he added.
Young rejected the idea of spending any more Measure V money on Legacy Fields, noting that the $9 million worth of improvements proposed for Legacy Fields appeared to be the latest in a continual string of add-ons for the sports park.
“Then we have to ask ourselves as a community, do we continue to put off other things because other things happened?” she said. “We have to think of the fairness and when are we actually going to get some shovels in the ground that’s going to serve more of our community.”
Rickman replied that the requested funding would enable the city to fulfill a promise to residents.
“I look at Legacy Fields as not being complete,” he said. “We have a chance to finish Legacy, which means a total of 10 diamonds, the restrooms and so on.”
Councilman Dan Arriola said that he also supported the funding for Legacy Fields, but he believed the council should consider the aquatics center and multigenerational recreation center as higher priorities.
“We had to be realistic about time frames, so I would be in support of completing (Legacy Fields) after the aquatics project and multi-gen center are done, and I am open to changing that time frame once we have that discussion on phasing,” he said.
Councilwoman Rhodesia Ransom added that she didn’t feel the council would be taking anything away from Legacy Fields considering how much the city had already invested in that project.
“It’s not that we’re not committed to Legacy Fields, but we also want to consider the entire community, the spirit of Measure V and what was promised when people went out campaigning to get people to vote for Measure V and ask them to trust us with a general tax that we’re going to treat like a special tax,” she said.
The discussion of Measure V was just the first part of the city’s aquatics center discussion on Tuesday. The council also unanimously approved the conceptual design for the center, but it took a further 1½ hours, including a presentation by Surland and its consultants, plus another half-hour of public comment, before the council could weigh in on the plan.
Surland’s representatives described a park that includes a 50-meter competition pool and a recreation-and-warmup pool, a lazy river feature surrounding a waterslide complex, a toddler pool, and buildings for snack bars and support services.
Les Serpa, CEO of Surland Communities, told the council members that it was a scaled-back version of what they had reviewed in November. Serpa and his consultants also cautioned the council against taking a phased, piecemeal approach toward development.
“The aquatics center’s time has really come. It’s ready to start construction now. It only needs approval of the concept plan so we can start the construction documents, and council has indicated tonight it’s keeping its prior commitment of $55 million prioritized through Measure V,” Serpa told the council.
“If we have to come back with an extensive phased plan, it’s going to take tens of thousands of dollars and this sitting council will never see this again. It’s going to be with someone new eventually six months from now.”
The council’s unanimous decision was just to approve the design and the cost of $65 million. City Manager Jenny Haruyama and City Attorney Leticia Ramirez told the council that the timeline for construction would depend on the availability of Measure V income, a topic the council will have to consider at a later date.
Young said the desire in the community for the aquatics center was clear, and the council had approved various concepts over the years. She noted that each delay only increased the projected cost up until November, when the council ended up asking Surland to scale the project back from its $130 million price tag.
“They did what we asked and it’s beautiful for our community, and Measure V was set aside for such things as this,” she said.
Young continued to ask Surland’s consultants about the details of the plan, but after more than 20 minutes, Rickman reminded her that the meeting had gone well past midnight and none of the other council members had a chance yet to comment on or ask questions about the conceptual design.
Councilwoman Veronica Vargas was ready to see the project move forward, but she also expressed her frustration that the meeting had gone 7½ hours with only an hour devoted to topics other than Measure V, Legacy Fields and the aquatics center.
“I’m sick and tired of being here past midnight, every other Tuesday, and not complete an agenda, because people talk for 20, 30 minutes with no consideration of the timeline,” Vargas said.
The other council members also kept their remarks brief before voting.
“Staff and the developers really did exactly what we wanted them to do,” Arriola said, acknowledging that the availability of Measure V funds was still an issue for the city to resolve, but the city still needed to limit the project budget to $65 million, with only $18.4 million to spend up front.