Guest Commentaries

Guest commentary: Greenways is great, but what about indoor rec?

Let's rethink Bellingham's recreational needs in our dark, wet place
October 20, 2023 at 4:50 a.m.
Noah Chen, 16, teaches swim lessons at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center in July 2022. More indoor recreation facilities are needed to serve Bellingham's population, Brad Jones writes in a guest commentary.
Noah Chen, 16, teaches swim lessons at Arne Hanna Aquatic Center in July 2022. More indoor recreation facilities are needed to serve Bellingham's population, Brad Jones writes in a guest commentary. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

By Brad Jones, Guest Writer

The Bellingham community needs to strongly consider funding fixed, indoor, public recreation spaces with the Greenways V levy. 

Our limited public dollars need to offer a diverse set of recreation offerings and facilities year-round. This is not about whether open space is good; this is about Bellingham investing public funds and creating a more diverse and inclusive recreation portfolio. 

The Alternative Greenways committee was formed to shine a light on the large imbalance that exists between quality public outdoor recreation opportunities and quality public indoor recreation opportunities in Bellingham. The parks and recreation department’s mission statement is, “We support a healthy community by providing high-quality parks and recreation services.” 

While this is absolutely happening with outdoor recreation thanks to programs like the beloved Greenways levy, and park impact fees, we have a long way to go with indoor recreation. The city’s Parks, Recreation & Open Space (PRO) Plan highlights how low of a priority expanding public indoor recreation truly is.

During the past 33 years, the Greenways Program has been successful in taxing residents to raise funds for acquiring, maintaining and creating outdoor recreation opportunities. We now have an abundance of beautiful trails and parks. The levy has collected more than $100 million. The National Recreation Park Association (NRPA) estimates the outdoor park needs for a city of 100,000 people to be 1,500 acres. Bellingham has 3,200 acres, and if you factor in Galbraith Mountain, we are at 5,400 acres. 

As much as we love our outdoor parks, Bellingham has plenty of bad weather. With up to eight months of challenging weather and atmospheric rivers, Bellingham needs public indoor recreation that allows us to keep moving regardless of how cold, dark and wet it is outside.

Let’s balance our parks in Bellingham with modern, energy-efficient, public facilities like pools, ice rinks, senior centers and community centers. Fixed, indoor recreation facilities integrate well with public transit systems, making them more accessible than trail systems.

Trails and outdoor spaces, while free, can often create unsafe and intimidating situations for younger and solo users. Public indoor recreation facilities are a safe and controlled place for all ages, abilities and cultures to gather and enjoy: 

• Pools for family/recreational use and lap swimming, swim teams (masters, club, high school).

• Gymnasiums (basketball, volleyball, pickleball, multi-use).

• Indoor walking/jogging track.

• Fitness center (cardio, free weights, strength equipment, workout classes).

• Rock climbing wall.

NRPA states that public community pools should be able to accommodate 6% of the city’s population at any one time. Most cities achieve this with multiple pools. Arne Hanna Aquatic Center, our only public pool, accommodates less than 1% of Bellingham’s population. 

Every family should be able to have access to swim lessons, swim teams, lap swims and water exercise classes. In the interest of public safety in a coastal community, every person in Bellingham should have the opportunity to learn to swim, and we need public pools to accomplish that goal.

What data does the Greenways committee have to show an overwhelming public need for more parks/trails versus fixed recreation facilities? With the city’s recent surveys around recreational facilities and Bellingham’s overwhelming number of parks and trails, a strong case can be made to add fixed recreation to the Greenways levy.

The privatization of swimming pools and year-round recreation facilities has hurt minority groups the hardest. Without public facilities, recreation like swimming becomes exclusive, forcing the community to seek facilities outside of Whatcom County.

Bellingham is the 11th largest city in Washington state — however, communities smaller than Bellingham, such as Mount Vernon, Snohomish and Yakima, have funded and built larger and newer facilities in the past five to eight years. The $36 million Greenways levy collected from 2017–2022 could have funded a new pool or community recreation center serving a wider set of families year-round. 

We urge Greenways to go back to the drawing board and earmark funds for new facilities. Greenways has used some funds for maintenance on existing facilities, but has done nothing to expand public indoor recreation to meet the public need. 

Voters should vote no on the current proposal not as a rejection of funds for outdoor recreation, but with the hope of a more balanced approach.

Going forward, I hope that the Greenways Program can evolve its good work to repurpose the funding to be more inclusive by growing our public indoor park offerings.

Brad Jones has lived and been a business owner in Bellingham since 2008. He enjoys swimming with the Bellingham Masters Swim Club, and is a coach with the Bellingham Bay Swim Team. 

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