Rep. Travis Nelson Proposes $33 Million Go Toward Building North Portland Aquatic Center

The estimated $50 million project seeks to combat a community pool desert in North Portland.

Portlanders might be one massive step closer to seeing a giant aquatic center built in North Portland.

State Rep. Travis Nelson, who filled the vacant seat left by Rep. Tina Kotek (D-Portland) at the beginning of February when she stepped down to run for governor, proposed that the state allocate $33 million to the creation of a massive aquatic center planned for North Portland. The aquatic center, a project likely to take more than five years for Portland Parks & Recreation to complete, is waiting on funding to commence.

Since the city shuttered a large indoor pool in North Portland in 2019, neighborhood groups have been pushing for the city to build a replacement or repair the existing Columbia Pool building in the Portsmouth neighborhood.

“North Portland deserves to have the same access to aquatic services as other parts of Portland,” Nelson tells WW. “Students at Rosa Parks Elementary School, in the heart of this neighborhood, come from over 20 different countries, and over 90% of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. We need to invest in this community by giving folks a place to come together for physical activity, community involvement, and to teach our youth valuable skills.”

Three sites have been tagged as potential locations for the future aquatic center. Early estimates pegged it as a $35 million project, but Portland Parks & Recreation now estimates it could cost closer to $50 million because of increased labor and material costs.

Last spring, City Commissioner Carmen Rubio announced an $11.7 million allocation from parks system development charges to build the center in the coming years. In her testimony on Friday, she said she’d raise that commitment to $17 million if legislators approved $33 million—enough combined to go forward with the project.

The Ways and Means Committee heard Nelson’s proposal on Friday.

Rubio said in her testimony to the committee that the center “will meet a glaring and long-overdue community need and provide valuable experiences to underserved communities that have historically been excluded from public pools.”

“Without access to a pool to have swim lessons, kids may not learn to swim,” Rubio added. “Researchers have confirmed that children of color are far less likely to know how to swim and, far worse, identified an unacceptable public health outcome: Children of color drown at a higher rate than white kids.”

In 2019, one of the few pools in North Portland, Columbia Pool, was shut down first because of a parks budget shortfall and then because inspectors deemed it unsafe for occupancy.

Neighbors surrounding the shuttered Columbia Pool have pressed city officials to fund a full inspection of the building and to do temporary repairs, which could cost anywhere from $5 to $10 million.

Late last year, those neighbors asked that the city use some of its fall surplus dollars to conduct an inspection of the Columbia Pool. But the $1.5 million line item the neighbors were eyeing had already been allocated to helping North Portlanders access pools this summer. (The parks bureau is in the process of figuring out exactly how the dollars will be spent. Options include offering transportation and free passes to neighboring pools).

The city declined to reallocate the funding to the Columbia Pool, and explained why to WW late last year.

“Portland Parks & Recreation does not have the direction or the $5 to $10 million (or more) to move forward with a temporary fix of Columbia Pool,” bureau spokesman Mark Ross said at the time. “Columbia Pool is nearing the end of its useful life. The bureau has monitored whether the building is safe for years, and was forced to close the pool when life safety hazards related to the roof and skylight were discovered.”

This article was published with support from the Jackson Foundation, whose mission is: “To promote the welfare of the public of the City of Portland or the State of Oregon, or both.”