Seven years ago, a group formed to help bring a swimming pool to Winchester. Calling themselves Swim Winchester, they have since become a non-profit organization with the ability to privately raise funds for things like a feasibility study, design plans and of course the actually construction of the pool itself.
Even though it’s been seven years, the project still has a ways to go. But, for those with a vested interest in Winchester obtaining a community swimming pool, the group continues to move forward with plans and has, so far, raised $250,000 toward their goal of $12M or $15M.
The beginning of the process included finding a feasible site to host the pool. They looked all over town including Wildwood Cemetery, but eventually settled on Skillings Field adjacent to the high school on Skillings Road. The field was recently outfitted with a new synthetic turf surface and an additional culvert to help with flood mitigation.
To use the field, the organization needed the approval of the Select Board and School Committee. They received the OK, but not before members expressed some trepidation about building a swimming pool in a flood zone (not to mention a former dumping ground that once housed toxic chemicals; though the site has recently been cleaned up as part of the turf and culvert project).
Swim Winchester also received pushback from neighbors. Forming a group called The Friends and Neighbors of Skillings Field, they rejected the idea that Skillings would be appropriate for such a project. While they expressed excitement at the thought of a local, community swimming pool, the neighborhood balked at the notion it should be in a flood plain and on a former dumping ground.
Over the past few years, both organizations have gone back and forth and even today don’t seem to be any closer to a resolution. Last month, members of The Friends and Neighbors of Skillings Field visited the Select Board to express disappointment in the process and the amount of time Swim Winchester has been given to work on the project.
Jeff Dean, speaking on behalf of The Friends and Neighbors of Skillings Field, pointed out all the negatives associated with the field: it’s 1.6 acres of space located in the floodplain that used to be a town dump and was filled with all sorts of toxic chemicals.
He said he and his neighbors have already experienced seven years of construction including remediation and adding a fourth culvert underneath the surface.
“These projects have caused physical damage, psychological stress and a decrease in the quality of life,” he noted. “Enough is enough. Give the neighbors a break.”
The board and the School Committee, however, in a recent joint meeting, continued to back Swim Winchester with the Select Board going so far as to approve the project to continue for two more years. They simply requested six months check-ins from the non-profit. The School Committee didn’t make a formal vote, but shared their appreciation for the group’s efforts.
Amanda Lewis, President of Swim Winchester, applauded her organization’s progress the past two years (the last time either the Select Board or School Committee received a formal update occurred in January of 2018). She said the goal they had would be good for business in town and have a positive impact on the community.
“We’re moving forward carefully with guidance,” she stated, adding her group is made up of parents and volunteers and not professional fundraisers.
Because of some changes at the site, Swim Winchester had to create new design plans which pushed back their fundraising efforts. They’re still prepping the site, reaching out to potential supporters, working on site and design research, continuing to partner with the town, and adjusting their fundraising timeline.
($250,000 in two years is clearly not a lot of money, but Lewis stressed that once the new plans are finalized, Swim Winchester can really begin their outreach efforts.)
To make the necessary changes because of a loss of space, Swim Winchester hired civil engineer firm HSI to survey the site and address the issues. Lewis said HSI and an architect generated plans with the building moved. She also said her group discussed the new plans with Town Engineer Beth Rudolph and Town Planner Brian Szkeley, plus neighborhood representatives.
In total, Lewis said they have 26,000 sq. ft. for two pools.
As for any flooding concerns, Swim Winchester hired hydrology experts, The H. L. Turner Group, to review the town’s flood mitigation work, 800-page AECOM documents as well as work on the culvert and Skillings by VHB. Lewis called the site buildable and suggested it may be possible to build additional measures.
David Bentley, a member of the Board of Directors for Swim Winchester, talked about all the outreach and community engagement including a Paint the Town Aqua fundraiser in 2018, an adult swim fundraiser in 2019 and two swim-a-thons in both 2018 and 2019. The group has also been at the Farmers Market, Town Day and in contact with various groups such as the Chinese American Network of Winchester, the Council on Aging, The Friends and Neighbors of Skillings Field, the Jenks Center, the Family Action Network, among others.
They’ve expanded their board of directors, updated their website, created an informal video, had several articles published in this paper, increased their support database by 50 percent, and grew their social media following, as well.
When it comes to the neighborhood, Bentley said they’ve engaged with the neighbors several times including in 2018 and twice in 2019. According to Bentley, the last contact occurred in November of last year through an email sent to a neighborhood representative detailing flood study findings.
Bentley called the process “fully transparent.” He added the group has educated themselves on local peer facilities to see what does and doesn’t work. He said it’s important to understand programming needs first and build accordingly.
“We educated ourselves on business plans of peer facilities to ensure the financial viability of our planned facility,” he stressed.
Some of the sites Swim Winchester visited include: Beede Center in Concord, Wayland Community Pool in Wayland, the Wellesley Sports Center in Wellesley, and LifeTime Athletic in Burlington. Bentley said they have more visits planned.
Lewis brought up the continued partnership with the town including updates to the board, Town Manager and Superintendent of Schools, plus consultations with the Fire Chief to review preliminary plans for fire safety.
While Lewis suggested another five or eight years until the pool officially opens (assuming everything falls into place), they’ve been able to raise some money, but haven’t begun their capital campaign yet. She said they need more advanced conceptual drawings first. Before that, Swim Winchester plans to update its 2014 feasibility study, then start an RFP process to choose an architectural design firm to create the advanced drawings.
There’s a lot of ifs on the horizon, of course: can Swim Winchester raise the $12M-$15M needed to construct the pool, will they receive the necessary approvals and can they finalize the design/engineering/construction plans.
Moving forward, the non-profit expects to hold more public hearings, launch Phase III: capital campaign, solicit management proposals from professional aquatic facility management firms (the pool won’t be run by the town or Swim Winchester) and develop legal aspects of the land agreement with the town.
“We want this project to be walkable and attract business to downtown,” Lewis shared.
Members of the Select Board and School Committee had both praise and questions as the project moves into Phase III and beyond. School Committee member Brian Vernaglia wanted some assurance that high school athletes would have time to use the facility after school and not just before.
Lewis said she wanted the swim team to have access, but “we want to serve every demographic.”
Select Board Chair Mariano Goluboff called the pool the only athletic field for people with mobility issues and seniors, but echoed Vernaglia’s statement that the high school athletes need time, as well.
School Committee member Zeina Marchant questioned the viability of the soil due to the site being a former landfill, but Lewis mentioned how the soil issue has been addressed. She also noted how the contamination in the northeast corner of the site, where Swim Winchester plans to build, was “much less than anywhere else.”
When asked about the possibility of a follow up test, Lewis said she was assured it wouldn’t be an issue and added how the pool would basically be above ground, anyway.
Select Board member Amy Shapiro inquired about funds for maintenance issues, but Lewis said she didn’t have answers for all that yet.
One positive comment came from School Committee member Chris Nixon, the only member of his committee around at the time the project first got off the ground. He praised the group for their due diligence in finding the appropriate site and taking on the project.
“The School Committee is probably not interested in building a pool or being a landlord,” Nixon commented on the group’s willingness to take on such a large task.
He mentioned how the Flynn Rink in Medford, where Winchester plays hockey, is managed by an outside group. He called it one example Swim Winchester could look at.
Nixon also talked about the progress the town has made when it comes to flood mitigation, mentioning the last two projects: Swanton Street bridge (to begin this year) and the Muraco School culverts. He said this project could coincide with remapping Skillings Field and the surrounding neighborhood after the work is done.
Even with all the possible bumps, not to mention the ones which have already occurred, Select Board member Michael Bettencourt hoped the project could remain on schedule. He then made the motion to allow Swim Winchester to continue what they’ve started for another two years.
While the School Committee didn’t make a similar vote that night, chair Michelle Bergstrom echoed the comments of Bettencourt. She also acknowledged Swim Winchester’s community engagement and said the next steps look fabulous. However, she couldn’t help but think when and how it would get done.
The neighbors, meanwhile, while not allowed to speak at the joint meeting, have expressed their own concerns about the project’s viability. Dean, the spokesperson for the group, has suggested they don’t have the money and won’t be able to raise it. He has listed many problems the neighbors have with the project including:
• Public safety
• Site selection
• Financial feasibility
• Construction impact
“We have property rights,” he argued at a meeting back in early February, “and this hardship needs to come to an end. We want a public position that Swim Winchester is in violation of their Jan. 16, 2018 proposal.”
In a follow-up email, Dean wrote how “the burden was placed on Swim Winchester to report back over two years, not at the end of two years. There has been no evidence of progress on any of the items, and the Select Boards seems unconcerned that the deadline they set (to provide the neighbors with finality) has lapsed.
“The 10 families that attended in person (the early February meeting) looking for answers, and the 30-plus that signed our petition opposing the site in 2018 are very frustrated and disappointed. The conditions have not been met, the time is up, give the neighbors the relief that they were promised.”
After the joint meeting, there doesn’t seem to be any relief in site for frustrated neighbors. However, with a six-month check-in schedule, at least they’ll have more opportunities to voice their displeasure and fight to have their issues addressed and questions answered.