New pool plan on the table

By Melissa Proulx
On March 21, 2014

Despite an already full agenda, an unplanned item took precedence at Monday's Town Council meeting after staff members at UNH announced a new plan for the highly-debated outdoor pool.

More than a dozen residents gathered in the Council Chambers in tense anticipation as to how the council members would react, based on the most recent proposal. The round table was nearly filled, with council members Julian Smith - who was not scheduled to arrive until later that evening - and the newest member, Kathy Bubar, abroad that week.

It was around 3:46 p.m. that day when council members and other members of the Durham community received an email detailing a proposed plan for the UNH Outdoor Pool. The email came from Vice President of Students and Academic Affairs Mark Rubinstein, who said that he was speaking on behalf of UNH President Mark Huddleston.

The proposed plan stated that a new 14,000 to 16,000 square foot pool would be built in order to replace the existing one. The cost of the project would be an estimated $4.4 million and would be paid for entirely by the university. Rubinstein said in both his letter to the council and at the meeting that he hopes construction would begin as soon as possible in order to ensure reopening of the pool for the 2015 summer season.

"We are requesting the town's elected leadership to add its support for the university's proposal at tonight's Town Council meeting," Rubinstein said in his letter. "This will allow sufficient lead time to prepare the university's formal presentation for the USNH Board of Trustees' meeting in April at which time UNH will seek approval for the project."

At the beginning of the meeting, Council Chair Jay Gooze read a draft motion that stated that the council endorses the pool and would allow planning and construction to begin immediately. However, the simple statement became much more complicated during the public comments.

More than a dozen residents were in attendance and many chose to voice their opinions on the university's proposal. In the past, many have expressed concerns about whether a new pool would be an adequate replacement for the existing one and questioned the true intentions of the university for wanting to replace the pool. 

Though everyone had his or her own points to make, one point was made clear: the debate should continue.

"UNH plans to destroy the pool to put in two basketball courts and a track. They want to destroy a treasure," Durham resident Carol Glover said. "Be clear about what you're being asked to do."

"I, like everyone else, was kind of stunned tonight," resident Jim Howwitt said. "The whole thing reeks of a backdoor deal and the town does not want to be associated with anything like that."

Even for a few of the council members, this distrust was shared.

"I was very surprised to have received your email," Council Member Diana Carroll said. "I was being asked as a Town Council member to vote and when looking through [the proposal], six numbers was what I had."

"We're looking and having the discussion about the pool for the one reason that's not talked about," she later said, holding up plans for the Hamel Recreation Center.

Even with the backlash of opposition, there were a handful of community members who sided with the new proposal, believing it to be the best choice for the money.

"I'm here to support the motion you have in front of you," resident Cathy Leach said. "We could be looking at two summers without a pool if we keep pushing this off."

Leach also believed that the size of the pool was acceptable, saying that if it were any bigger, tax money from the town would have to be used as funding, a move that she did not support.

In the end, the decision was made by Gooze to hold off on voting on the motion in order to allow for the proposed sketches to be drawn up and for the all councilmen to come together discuss the issue more.

"I could have voted tonight," Gooze said after the decision was made. "The fact is, the university owns the pool and it's just up to the town to work with them to get the best that they can get."

In an email following the meeting, Rubinstein said this "vague" wording was not meant to pressure councilmen into making a decision.

"Our primary objective was to place the issue in front of the Town Council for consideration," he said in the letter, agreeing with the council's decision to postpone the vote. "... But if we had waited until the next meeting of the Town Council to bring forth a confirmation of our proposal, it was more likely to have affected our ability to prepare for a presentation to the USNH Board of Trustees for consideration at their April meeting."

The controversial debate between the town and the university over what to do with the pool has been extensively discussed for what Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig estimates the last 10 months, though the question of what to do with the aging pool has been around for years.

Past project proposal have included a "retrofit" of the current 32,000 square foot pool already in place as well as a significantly smaller 10,000 square foot pool, but Rubinstein said the university, after receiving more exact figures on previous estimates, has had "an emerging consensus favoring the 14,000-16,000 foot option".

The current pool was built in the 1937 and since then has acted as a central meeting group for both students and full-time residents during the summer months. According to the university's website, though the pool has received multiple updates over the past decades, it is still largely out-of-date and considered a health and safety risk for users.

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