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At shuttered swim center, community seeks answers, action

Palo Alto nonprofit asks for community's help in planning, funding new facility

Clients of the Betty Wright Aquatic Center pool in south Palo Alto expressed their sense of loss -- and anxiety -- Thursday night over the sudden closure of the facility in early October.

Thursday's town hall-style meeting, hosted by the nonprofit that ran the center for 45 years, was the first chance many people had to voice their concerns about losing the area's only warm-water pool.

The center's abrupt closure has left the nonprofit, Abilities United, scrambling to find alternate places to offer its rehabilitation and recreation services, which served hundreds of people a week.

Staff and board Thursday explained that the 45-year-old facility on Middlefield Road had come to the end of its life.

"This pool is dead. There's nothing left to it," Rho Olaisen, director of the center, told people as they sat in folding chairs around the bone-dry concrete pool.

For 20 of its years, the facility had not been maintained annually, Olaisen said, leading to cracked pipes and, eventually, irreparable structural damage.

The infrastructure was breaking even as repairs were being made, board chairwoman Heidi Feldman told the mostly grey-haired crowd.

"We knew our time was running short. It gave out sooner than anyone expected," she said.

Palo Alto resident Dana St. George had been coming to the pool twice a week since February 2007, after an illness left her largely paralyzed. Earlier this month, she came and found the doors closed for good, and she received an email with the explanation.

"I was shocked to hear that," said St. George, who is now walking and speaking again.

What's more, she told the Weekly, she thought the tone of the email was "hopeless."

St. George Thursday asked staff for information on how much it would cost to fix the pool and how it could be "saved."

"I really hope the board will come up with that information and clue us in so a decision can be made," St. George said.

The sudden shuttering led her to be suspicious that a developer wanted to buy the property and build homes, as has happened throughout Palo Alto, St. George told the Weekly.

But Olaisen assured the group that the nonprofit isn't looking to abandon the property.

"We are all very committed to this very site," he said. The question, he added, is whether rebuilding there would be the best option in the long run.

In trying to build another pool -- somewhere -- the nonprofit is moving into uncharted waters. A committee of board and staff members is examining four options: rebuild the facility, expand elsewhere on the same Middlefield Road property, find a local parcel on which to build a new facility or find an existing local building that can be renovated.

While Palo Alto is the organization's first choice for location, the availability -- and affordability -- of land in nearby cities could be a determining factor, according to Lynda Steele, Abilities United's executive director.

To explore and vet the options, the organization is seeking the advice of local experts -- builders, architects, engineers and financiers -- and has been meeting with them in groups, Steele said.

The committee hopes to make a recommendation to the board no later than next March or April, Steele said.

It could take a year or two, respectively, to find or build on another site, the committee has already estimated. The organization did not have a timeframe Thursday for renovating or constructing anew at the current site.

To get a sense of the hopes of the crowd Thursday, one client of the pool, Barry Kramer, asked for a show of hands for two options: building a larger facility elsewhere, which would possibly take a longer time to construct, or rebuilding the current facility more quickly, albeit with fewer features than might be had elsewhere.

No one raised a hand for the first option; for the latter, about a dozen or more hands went up.

The importance of the pool, with its 93-degree water and accessibility for people who use wheelchairs, was cited by the crowd.

"The atmosphere here is very special," St. George said referring to the diversity of people with abilities, or disabilities, who use the pool -- people who have one leg, or no legs, or paralysis.

"Our world is so perfectionistic. There's a different sense of value here," she said. The focus isn't on worldly achievement but on "how can you deal with what you've been given."

St. George, who calls herself a "greenie," favors reusing the old facility.

"Fix the facility they've got. It's old, but it's cozy. It's not sterile. This place is very personal," she said. "There's something sheltering, homey, not too big."

While plans are being made for another pool, Abilities United will be offering recreational services at the Palo Alto YMCA and the hydrotherapy at the Timpany Center in San Jose, which also has a warm-water facility.

By Jan. 1, the staff hope to have three additional area pools lined up, where they can provide services.

The loss of the pool has hurt their nonprofit's bottom line. The nonprofit has established the "Betty Wright Legacy Fund," at https://www.abilitiesunited.org/bettywrightlegacyfund, to raise the money for the satellite aquatic services. Funds can also be sent to Abilities United Betty Wright Legacy Fund, 525 E. Charleston Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306.

As for the pool, after an idea is fleshed out, the organization will approach foundations known to fund capital campaigns for assistance.

And if a "high net worth individual" wanted to participate in the project or lend expertise to help shape it, Steele said, "We welcome that. We'd love that."

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