Ames' struggle to build community aquatic center hits rough water

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated this project will go to the voters for a bond referendum and misstated the timing of the bidding process and construction as well as the reason for amenities not being available at the North Oak Ave. site. 

Ames City Council on Tuesday evening heard passionate pleas to not consider replacing O'Neil Park with the city's proposed $30.1 million Fitch Family Indoor Aquatic Center.

The neighborhood park located on South 4th Street just west of the Iowa DOT offices is being considered for the development because the favored location is contaminated with pollutants.

"The city of Ames has failed me and my friends," said Ames resident Judith Lemish. "It gives me pause about the trust I put in the city of Ames."

This image of the Fitch Family Indoor Aquatic Center shows the proposed location at 122 North Oak Avenue looking north. The roadway in the foreground is Lincoln Way. Building the facility at this location is in jeopardy due to soil and ground water contamination. The Ames City Council met July 26, 2022 to discuss alternatives.

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The city has invested 18 months into planning for the indoor facility, the latest in a long line of indoor recreation and pool complexes the community has tried to develop over the past two decades.

Several months ago the council settled on a location at 122 North Oak Ave., directly north of the Iowa DOT main offices on Lincoln Way. It is the site of the former St. Cecelia Catholic Elementary school and is owned by the DOT.

However, after three months of environmental studies, the staff presented a report to the council July 12 that the property's soil and ground water is contaminated with a variety of pollutants, including benzene. 

What's next for the Ames Indoor Aquatic Center?

Council hopes to make the final decision regarding the site location so it can take the project to bid in 2023 and begin construction later in the year. The project does not require a bond referendum thanks to the city's Reinvestment District. If these timing goals aren't met, the project would likely have to wait a year for the next construction season in 2024.

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Mayor John Haila said Tuesday night that the council will take the staff's report under advisement along with the input from the community made in person at Tuesday's council meeting and comments made via email. Haila and several council members encouraged citizens to send their input via email. The city's website has the email addresses for the council and mayor.

The council could take up the issue and make a decision about the site location at the August 9 council meeting. Haila would not commit to whether he would allow additional public comment on the matter when the council brings the matter back for a vote on the site location.

Meanwhile, Ames Parks and Recreation Director Keith Abraham is sending messages to approximately 8,000 email addresses maintained by the Ames Parks and Recreation Department to notify them of this process and upcoming decision regarding the site. Abraham said any citizens who would like to be added to that email list can send him a message at keith.abraham@cityofames.org.

Aquatic Center hits rough water

At the council's meeting July 12, city staff was directed to go back to reconsidering potential locations that were located near the city's new Iowa Reinvestment District that could generate as much as $10 million in tax rebates to help pay for the recreation development. 

The Reinvestment District is an irregular-shaped district with a section to the north and the south of the east-west Union Pacific railroad tracks located just south of Main Street. 

The northern section of the district is generally located between 6th Street to the north, Kellogg Avenue to the east, the railroad tracks to the south and Clark Avenue or Grand Avenue to the west, The northern section of the district is connected to the southern area via Clark Avenue. The southern portion of the district is located between the railroad tracks to the north, Duff Avenue to the east, South 2nd Street and Lincoln Way to the south, and North Oak Avenue to the west. 

In order to take advantage of the potential tax rebates, the indoor aquatic center site must be located within the current boundaries of the Reinvestment District or close enough that the district could expand to include the site.

This image of the proposed Fitch Family Indoor Aquatic Center shows the proposed location at 122 North Oak Avenue looking south. The roadway in the foreground on the left is North Elm Avenue. Lincoln Way is located in the upper left corner with the Iowa DOT campus across the street. Building the facility at this location is in jeopardy due to soil and ground water contamination. The Ames City Council met July 26, 2022 to discuss alternatives.

The staff has reviewed 12 additional sites for the project. Advantages and disadvantages of the various sites almost all boil down to lower or higher costs. 

One other issue related to the sites received attention at the council meeting. One is the city's long-term goals is to decrease pavement and increase green space in the Climate Action Plan. But some of the potential sites would increase pavement, not decrease it. 

In the case of the O'Neil Park location, the city suggested park space could be developed for the neighborhood on city land in the floodway to the west of the existing park along the Ioway Creek. Residents and some council members pointed out the O'Neil Park option would decrease overall greenspace in the community, which is contrary to the Climate Action Plan.

Another issue that received significant comments from citizens and the council members was the indoor walking track and multipurpose room. If the indoor aquatic center is built at 122 North Oak Ave., the cost of purchasing the land, demolition and and contamination clean-up won't leave enough money in the budget for an indoor running track and multipurpose room. Because the O'Neil Park site doesn't require a land purchase, demolition or contamination mitigation, the budget would allow for the additional amenities. 

"The number one request we get from our citizens is where they can access an indoor walking track," Abraham said during his presentation to the council. 

Council member Tim Gartin said he favored the O'Neil Park location.

"Unfortunately, no families with young children who are desperate for access to this indoor pool were here to speak tonight," Gartin said.

Of the 12 Ames citizens who spoke to the council about the indoor aquatic center, none of them supported the O'Neil Park site and none of them raised concerns about costs regarding the project. Several people offered additional sites to consider. Some of the speakers also blamed the city for allowing the pollutants that contaminated the ground in the first place.

Gartin said he and other council members have received emails and letters on the topic, many of them in support of the O'Neil Park site. Copies of those letters were not immediately made available to the Ames Tribune. 

The long and winding road to an aquatic center

Former Ames Mayor Ann Campbell introduced Rich and Mary Fitch to the Ames community in 2018 when they made their $3 million donation to the Healthy Life Center project. The Center was a previous iteration of a massive recreation and aquatics center in 2019 that would have cost approximately $50 million. The Fitch family donation has been applied to the current Fitch Family Indoor Aquatic Center project.

On Sept. 10, 2019, Ames voters denied a $29 million bond that would have built the proposed Healthy Life Center for which the Fitch family originally gave their $3 million donation in 2018. The project was funded through a partnership between Heartland Senior Services, Mary Greeley Medical Center, Story County government, the city of Ames, private donations and a publicly funded bond referendum.

The bond vote received 48.5% support but required at least 60%. 

At the time of the failed vote, Abraham said he had expected it to pass with 65% of the vote. He said that the needs were still there and the city would reconsider options. The city had worked on planning the project for more than three years.

Opposition to the Healthy Life Center was led by Ames Fitness Center owner Tom Durkin, who was not immediately available for comment after Tuesday's council meeting. 

How did the Oak Avenue site get contaminated?

Oil, gas and coal companies were located on properties surrounding the proposed indoor aquatic development site at 122 North Oak Street through much of the 20th century. Those companies were engaged in a variety of petroleum activities, with things like bulk oil stations, filling stations, and gasoline tanks buried underground that leaked.

Additionally, asbestos has been found in the existing buildings on the site. 

Geotechnical borings at the property suggest the soils are suitable for all types of construction. However, groundwater was detected 7-10 feet below the surface and there are some sand seams in some of the borings, the city report said. This may require special footings to be constructed, which will increase costs. 

Cleaning up the contaminated soil and water is the greatest concern if the city moves forward with the 122 North Oak Street location. City staff estimates at least $526,000 to clean up the property. 

If the city moves forward with the project on North Oak Avenue, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources will oversee all of the work due to the ground contamination.

In a letter dated June 21, 2022, the DNR reconfirmed its support of the project at the site.

“Overall, Iowa DNR still agrees the proposed water park plan as presented would be a good fit for the site,” the state department said.

The property at 122 North Oak Avenue was assessed at $2.9 million. That assessed value was determined before the property contamination was confirmed. The DOT’s policies do not allow for negotiation to accept a value lower than this appraised amount. In the report to the council, city staff has suggested the city could pay the $2.9 million for the property, but that the DOT would then reimburse the city for mitigation of the property contamination.

Council member Gloria Betcher questioned whether the North Oak Avenue property can be made safe at all.

"You'll never get rid of all of the contamination," Abraham said. "Even if you dig it all out, the pollutant source is still there to the north leaching into the soil."

Swimmers enjoy the final time in the pool Monday at "The Dome," Ames' Municipal Indoor Pool which was demolished in March, 2022.

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Teresa Kay Albertson covers crime, courts and local government in Ames and central Iowa for the Ames Tribune and Des Moines Register. Reach her at talbertson@registermedia.com or 515-419-6098.