Though communities throughout Manitoba have been without the use of swimming pools for the last few months due to public health orders relating to the COVID-10 pandemic, Thompson will remain without an indoor swimming facility after other pools are opened while awaiting a replacement for the shuttered Norplex Pool, which was permanently shut down in mid-February 2019.
On the bright side, a planned new facility moved one step closer to becoming a reality rather than just an idea May 12 when the City of Thompson issued a request for pool design proposals with a submission deadline of June 12.
The request for proposals is seeking a design that includes features identified as desirable in pool surveys citizens completed last summer, including a separate lane swimming tank, a shallow leisure pool, a hot tub, a sauna, a steam room, a birthday party room, a water slide, beach-style entry for people with physical disabilities and a standalone splash pad. If including them all proves too expensive for the proposed budget of $20 million, the design will be scaled back to a more basic facility.
While it is good that the planning process is moving forward after 15 months without a pool in Thompson, choosing a design is one of the easier parts of the process, with finding the money likely to be a significant hurdle. Though Thompson is relatively lucky, in that it collects property taxes at the end of September, which may mean that it is more likely that everybody will have the money to cover them than if the due date had been in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic’s first wave with all the accompanying layoffs, the public health emergency will probably still result in less revenue for the city. A few months’ worth of revenue from recreational facility rentals has already been lost, and large-scale events won’t begin to be held until September at the earliest, according to the provincial government’s gradual economic reopening plan. The city was never going to have the money to pay for a new pool without significant assistance from other levels of government, but it is less likely to have additional reserves to draw on now, as they will be needed to simply avoid significant tax increases. On the other hand, however, the provincial government recently announced a new infrastructure funding program in hopes of helping to kickstart economic growth that was quashed by the pandemic and the federal government will probably be interested in doing some stimulus spending as well, which could mean that funding might be easier to obtain. Thompson will still have to shoulder anywhere from a quarter to a third of the cost - $5 million to $6.7 million - in an economic environment in which closures and temporary layoffs will have exacerbated the lingering effects of the 2018 Vale smelter and refinery shutdown, while only receiving $3 million as a property tax grant-in-lieu from Vale, down from $3.6 million last year (slightly more than 10 per cent of Thompson’s 2019 budget) and $4.8 million the year before that. With local property owners due to soon be on the hook to pay off money borrowed to cover the city’s share of the new wastewater treatment plant, which the city hadn’t yet taken over from the contractors as of recently, any plans that involve borrowing money to pay for the pool are unlikely to be popular among non-swimmers, people without children, or those who aren’t sure they’re going to be in Thompson anymore when the new pool is completed, which isn’t anticipated to occur before 2022 at the earliest.
It will be interesting to see how many of the desired features a pool designer can fit into their plan while remaining within the proposed budget. Once that is complete, the real heavy lifting on the part of council, city administration and the pool planning and fundraising committee will begin.