Brad Jones was in good health and able to still talk on the phone earlier this week; not bad for someone who willfully touched the official Third Rail of Bellingham politics.
Jones, a rolfer by trade and swimmer by passion, publicly suggested, here in the pages of the hometown newspaper, that people might consider — please sit down for this, and rest assured that grief counselors are standing by — voting “no” on the pending Greenways levy.
It practically qualifies as sacrilege in a town that treats its Greenways levy — more than $100 million in self-assessed property taxes raised via four successful levies over 33 years — as a big, fat badge of civic pride.
The levies have put Bellingham on the national map as a city that cares so deeply about its natural environs that it’s been willing to tax itself to expand the reach of local parks and trails — all during a period of persistent national anti-tax sentiment. It literally is cited as an example of our forward thinking in national media accounts.
But the question being asked by Jones and others is on-point and worthy: With a parks/trail network already off the charts in quantity and quality compared to peer cities, should we the people not consider declaring victory on that front and move on to what seems to be broadly supported needs for recreation of an entirely different flavor?
The cooler heads in the recreation lobby are not pushing to suddenly neglect the city’s jewel parks and trademark trail networks. They want to shift the finite fund of self-assessed property tax money to a more blended mechanism with a broader mission: preserve those jewels but also build up indoor rec facilities that would round out the playing field in a rec-obsessed region.
Jones and others have long made the case that the community health benefits associated with indoor swimming, tennis, running/walking, court sports and other activities is nearly as far off the charts, in the down direction, in Whatcom County.
Jones said his commentary, in which he (again: content warning) actually went there and suggested a possible “no” vote on Greenways 5, made a large splash in the swim community and beyond. His message lines lit up.
“Most of the response is positive,” he said. People attached to individual sports, such as swimming or YES, pickleball, have been making the argument for indoor facilities in our community for years. The column seemed to amp those folks up, but also draw in others previously unaware of the rec gap.
People who value the life-changing attributes of regular exercise have location as an ally. As the northernmost city of 50,000 or more residents in the contiguous United States, Bellingham is longitudinally challenged — high on adrenaline but low on winter light. The cold, dark, damp stretch is long.
Local folks who don’t have the luxury of daytime trail-trekking need a place to hone their skills, post some laps, let their pickleball freak flag fly, or just get in those precious watch-steps. It’s a fact of life for many. The need for additional public indoor court space, and competition swimming lanes for local clubs and schools is also acute. We trail most of our neighbors.
Should a city/county be expected to provide these services, especially given the current slate of inarguably more-urgent matters, such as growing homelessness on city streets? Nope. But different funding streams are at play here.
The city needs a modern multi-sport complex that brings all the indoor pursuits together in the spirit of a true community center. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Successful examples are found literally all around us, from a modern aquatics facility in Snohomish to a range of outstanding, multiuse community rec centers in British Columbia that combine water sports with ice sports and public exercise equipment and training.
Bellingham already has one advantage: An expanse of public property, home to the outmoded Arne Hanna Aquatics Center and a pair of city treasures, Civic and Joe Martin stadiums (please don't touch). It’s prime real estate in a centrally located Puget neighborhood — also home to aging, ill-located Carl Cozier Elementary School — that frankly could use a boost.
Could it happen? Sure. Bellingham has the civic smarts and resources to get it done. Will it? Maybe, if folks let down their guard and look forward, accepting the changing needs of a growing city.
Here’s the crux: As most have agreed, it is not, as some have suggested, a matter of either/or outside/inside. Bellingham, most seem to agree, can and should have amenities for both.
But Greenways boosters would be wise to consider the smarts of a snotty get-your-own-tax-levy rejoinder. Stacking an additional tax request onto already tax-assessment-shocked voters is likely to result in blowback that would smother both. It's tone-deaf.
So what needs to happen? Two possible starting points: Barring some near-religious conversions, indoor rec folks might need to take over some seats on the city’s Greenways Advisory Committee. And they will need to persuade the city council that it’s time for a gradual redirection of the flow of city rec funds — a goal that is very much in keeping with the city’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PRO) Plan.
City officials say that, while the operative Greenways plan clearly earmarks Greenways funds primarily for acquisition and maintenance of outdoor facilities, some room exists for other rec purposes.
Which is not to say the Greenways Committee and city council should pull a fast one on voters and decide to do something entirely different with money that might be approved on Nov. 7, with the likely passage of Greenways 5. And the amount of money there, while substantial, wouldn’t cover the cost of a new civic complex on top of existing outdoor promises.
But a smart compromise might lurk in the corners for smart residents: Vote yes on the levy, but follow through by pressuring the city to set aside funds sufficient to lay the groundwork of planning, scheming, dreaming — and establishing a funding pathway — for a Bellingham Civic Recreation Center of which the city can be proud. Future tax levies, if so desired, could support both, assuming Greenways adherents have the capacity to schooch over a bit.
Stuff tends to grow around here. Give it some water and sunlight and see what happens.
Ron Judd's column appears on Fridays; email@example.com; @roncjudd.