Former journalist Rachel Pritchett is looking to write her own headline in the upcoming election and unseat incumbent Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Park & Recreation District Commissioner John T. (Tom) Swolgaard from the Position 3 slot.
With a full slate of projects in the works and under discussion, including, most notably, possible plans to rebuild and expand the aquatic center and the future development of Sakai Park, as well continuing concerns such as vandalism, acquiring open space and trail maintenance and construction at the forefront of the discussion, both candidates vying for the position (a six-year term) chatted recently with the Review about their respective views and intentions.
* Transcripts have been edited for length and clarity.
John T. (Tom) Swolgaard
Swolgaard, a licensed architect, is the current Position 3 commissioner. In his last term, the park district acquired nearly 100 additional acres of open space, renovated Rotary Centennial Park, and built the now-iconic, all-access Owen’s Playground, in addition to adding about four miles of trails to the map and new restrooms in several parks.
Acquiring still more additional open space, rebuilding the pool, and improving recreational facilities are his stated to priorities, if re-elected.
BIR: What is your proudest accomplishment of the last six years?
JTS: There are so many things. One that I just really get excited about is Owen’s Playground, that was just like a home run. And the whole Rotary Park renovation was a major thing … It was just two ballfields before and they were facing the wrong way. We don’t like to have parks that get used just part of the time and then just sit … so we were trying to figure out how in the world we can make that happen, that people could use it all the time. So we decided it would be really cool to have a playground there, a nice playground. But we never dreamed of Owen’s Playground until Owen’s family came to us and said, ‘We would like to build a park.’
I drive by there all the time and there is always somebody playing there, which to me is really important because that’s what parks are all about: people need to use them.
BIR: Has there been a decision that was especially tough?
JTS: There’s been some, I guess I would say heartaches. One thing is we hear a lot from the tennis group. I’d love to build some more courts, but, first off, where? And then, they’re really expensive. We just opened the bids for the pickleball courts and, oh my gosh, it’s way over budget. It just makes us sick because, first off, we don’t have the money and our partner, the pickleball club, only raised so much. They’ve got to raise a heck of a lot more and so do we, and so we’re trying to figure out how to solve that.
BIR: I imagine walking the line between what you want and what you can afford is the primary battle for the parks board.
JTS: Everybody seems to think the park district has got lots of money but we don’t. We live on a very tight budget, and sure we’ve got some reserves, but the way the park district works is we don’t get any money from the county for the first four or five months of the year because we don’t get the money until the taxes are paid. We start Jan. 1 and we’ve got to run through April, the end of May, before we see any money and that costs us almost a million dollars to run just that short period. And then we have things we have money that’s been set aside for, other improvements in other areas, capital improvement projects and also land acquisition. That’s why we have a reserve that’s a little over $2 million.
There are a lot of things we’d love to do. Sakai Park, we’d love to start getting the trails built and getting things done, we’ve applied for permits, but we’re still waiting for the city to issue those.
BIR: An issue that just won’t die seems to be rules regarding off-leash dog areas. Is that settled so far as the commission is concerned?
JTS: I don’t think so. We want to open some more areas. And, of course, with Prithcard Park coming online to the park district that’s really going to help us a lot. But there are other areas where we’re still looking; our dog committee is always looking at our parks saying where can we do it? Can do we do shared [access]? What can we do? But we get so many complaints from people, too … about ‘Oh, that dog tried to bite me’ or ‘It chased my dog away’ all the time.
Personally, I would think something like [designated hours and/or days] could work, we’ve just got to figure out where and how.
BIR: You’ve said you’re hoping to acquire more open space. Where exactly are you thinking and how do we pay for that?
JTS: I can’t say where because it’s in negotiation, but we do a lot of partnering with the land trust. We only have so much money but we try to kick in what we can and then they try to raise [more] and we try to work it out so they’ll get their covenant on the property for the conservation easements and then we’ll be able to use something for a trail or whatever part of it can be leftover for active recreation.
My idea is really we need to, even though we may feel [we have enough park land] — we have 1,500 acres now — but when this island doubles in population that’s not going to be very much.
BIR: And, of course, preserved land is not the same as park land.
JTS: It’s not. You can walk through the Grand Forest, and the same with Gazzam Lake, but it’s mostly a nature preserve … and that’s the thing that worries me. You go to Battle Point, that place is packed, particularly in the summer, with all the activities going on. We need more land to do that.
It’s unfortunate that Sakai has got a lot of wetlands on it, so there isn’t very much of that land that we can use, but what we can, we’ll try to do. It was a very fortunate thing that the Sakai family offered that to us and the public was willing to purchase it.
BIR: You also said something in your candidate statement about improving recreational facilities. What specifically do you have in mind? What’s the top priority?
JTS: Everybody is concerned about Ray Williamson Pool; it’s well over 50 years old. We’ve had a study done on it to assess its condition and it’s failing, basically. The concrete is old; it’s starting to leak. The equipment is failing. Every year we put money into that thing. That’s the number one in my mind. We have to do something with it.
We hear a lot from the swimming groups but we thought [Don] Nakata [Memorial Pool] when it was added, the public did, that it was going to be great for many, many years — and it’s overbooked. We have over 400,000 swims a year; it’s a lot.
We’ve not said how big a pool we’re going to build. We’ve looked at a 50-meter pool, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to build a 50-meter pool. We’ve got a long ways to go if we ever do build another one. It’s expensive and how do you come up with the money? That’s something we’ve been trying to figure out. Will the community support a $50 million bond or whatever it is? I doubt it. So you’ve got to have other ways to finance that.
When we built the Nakata [pool], I can’t remember how many times it was on the ballot, at least three or four, and it failed and failed and failed and then finally the fourth time, it passed. We had to skinny it down, we took all the luxuries out of it, and we’ve paid the price over the years. We went from stainless steel to galvanized and now it fails and we replace it. We used cheaper pipe. We don’t want to go through that again. It was hard to sell the pool. I think it will be hard again.
I would like to have a pool that’s together, two pools. You take the Ray down and have the Nakata and another pool. You have to sequence it. You have to keep the Ray in operation while you build the new one. Otherwise, you’d devastate all the swimming programs. But how does that happen? I don’t know.
[Also] we have a lot of restrooms that need to be replaced, particularly in Battle Point. We have two out there that have got to go, they’ve got to be redone.
BIR: Vandalism, especially at Battle Point, is always a problem. How do you combat that?
JTS: We’ve put cameras up, but you can’t always catch them. I don’t know what else you can do. You don’t want to lock the parks up, but we have in the past. Maybe that’s what we have to do again, start locking the gates at night.
BIR: Very recently there has been some talk that parks should take over concessions at the public dock in Winslow. Is that something you’re in favor of?
JTS: I personally feel that the city should not be in the park district business. We’re both running parks, there should only be one: one fire department, one police department, one parks department. The city council in the past has been willing to part with all their “park land” but lately it’s kind of bogged down. We’re going to get Pritchard here very shortly, it’s almost finished, the transfer, and there’s Waterfront, there’s Strawberry that still has to be transferred to us. So hopefully that will happen.
BIR: You think that’s fair to the business that’s there already [Exotic Aquatics SCUBA & Kayaking] and has made an investment in their operation?
JTS: I don’t see why that can’t work. Why can’t she be there, we be there, why can’t we work together? It doesn’t make any sense to me.
BIR: So you’re saying that even if the city turns things over to you there is no reason they can’t keep operating?
JTS: I don’t see why not. Somebody has to tell me a real good reason.
BIR: Your opponent is touting the benefits of a fresh perspective on the board. Why is retaining someone with experience more important than what we might gain from a new point of view?
JTS: I guess maybe because I have my fingers in so many parts of the park district and have been there for quite a while, I helped set it up. I was part of the original group that started the metropolitan park district, so I know all the ordinances and policies and procedures and know all the groups. And I’m always open to new ideas. I’m not set in my ways. If somebody wants to do something, I’m willing to listen.
BIR: How much park land is appropriate for Bainbridge Island as we look ahead and anticipate a larger, denser population?
JTS: It’s called a level of service. Right now we’re fine … For me, it’s kind of skewed, I guess, because I feel like we need to preserve as much of the island as we can, the character of it. We’ve been here since ’77 and I’ve seen so many changes on the island — but I don’t mind the growth, to a degree. But when everything gets eaten up and full of houses, that’s going to be tough.
We need to have enough land for people to play. What that number is, I can’t tell you because I don’t know. But I do know we are going to be short over time in active recreation areas. We probably need another good 80 acres like Battle Point to solve those issues.
BIR: Anything else you think is important for people to know before they vote?
JTS: I like Rachel, she’s a wonderful lady … but she’s got it a little bit mixed up here. She’s worried about Sakai; she says in her statement that we’re going to spend $80 million and that isn’t true. We have not made any decision as to what’s going to happen with Sakai other than the fact that there will be some active recreation there, like trails.
She doesn’t understand because she wasn’t involved. When the property was purchased we told the public it would be an active recreation park, we’d do whatever we possibly can on the property. We opened it up to the public for public comments, public input, after we purchased the property … We went through this public process and they came up with 10 or 11 ideas as to what can be used there.
What [the architect] had done was he took all these little ideas to see how it would fit on the property and came up with this multiple building concept. The concept was you could build one now, maybe 20 years from now you could build another one. That was how it was set up. But we never said we were going to build it. We just wanted to know and answer the question that the community asked us: What can we build there? That’s all it’s about.
It is false panic. We are not going to go out and ask the public for a $90 million bond, not going to happen. First off, the community, I don’t feel, would support that.
Rachel also mentions she’d like to see the park district offices move downtown. Why in the world would we want to go rent a piece of property and pay taxpayer dollars for an office downtown? It doesn’t make any sense. Where are you going to park? How are you going to get to it? There is free parking, places to park, right now where we hold our meetings.
Pritchett boasts 34 years of local journalism experience and was founding editor of the Bainbridge Islander. Being retired, she’s a part-time administrator at Bethan Lutheran Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well as a troop leader for Girl Scouts of America.
She said she’s concerned the public is not being adequately informed of the construction options regarding two costly projects — the pool and Sakai Park, specifically — promotes herself as a “moderating voice,” and vows to relocate the park district offices to downtown Winslow, claiming the easier access may encourage increased public attendance at meetings and would be worth what would be comparatively minor expenses.
BIR: Do you think your years of journalism have given you a unique perspective that would be beneficial to the park district?
RP: It used to be, long ago when I was editor of the Bainbridge Islander and before that, both the Review and the Islander used to cover the parks more fully than we’re able to now … Of course that’s not possible anymore unless it’s something really, really big, so, as a journalist, I would bring that journalist’s eye to the board and to the district. I would be looking at things that a journalist would. I think that’s very unique and I think it’s very important [having a] government watchdog, very important, even with our parks — especially with our parks.
BIR: Why especially?
RP: We’re at a very critical juncture right now with some big money items on the horizon, close to $100 million. Right now we need to be really focused on the park district not just as an individual or as a board but as a community.
BIR: Regarding that hefty price tag, I’m understanding that’s the cost of the ideal plan but nobody has made any concrete decisions yet. So your opponent would say that your fear is premature and misplaced.
RP: My concern is that we need to get these two issues — and we’re talking about the remake of the Ray Williamson Pool and development of Sakai Park — in front of the community and they’re not now. One of the main reasons I’m running is to make sure the community knows about these two projects.
Am I exaggerating? Absolutely not. The parks board has for months had both of these issues in front of it, and the community has too, and the one for the pool, if we build the big one, it’s $43 million. For Sakai it’s $52 million. And that equals $95 million. That is built out, but those dollars are still very real and we need to be aware of that.
Now, will it happen? Who knows. But those are the proposals built out in full that are on the table.
BIR: Your opponent has said he’s in favor of keeping the pool where it is but expanding it. Do you think that’s the best plan?
RP: It’s an unfortunate place. It’s on leased property. It’s very small with only a limited ability to grow. There is very limited parking. The parks district and school have a very challenging relationship, and for that reason it’s a pretty bad place. It’s the only game in town at present, so yes we need to stay there unless something big comes up. We can’t build it at Sakai because of the wetlands. If a good alternative would come up, of course we’d look at that. But right now that spot is where we need to be.
There are three alternatives on the table: replacing Ray at the present size; [building] a huge Olympic-sized pool; and one in between.
BIR: A larger pool must have undeniable appeal, considering how heavily used the aquatic center is.
RP: It is. I’m a lap swimmer and I’ve swam there for 30 years … and so I understand that. I compete three times a week for a lane and it’s rough, very, very rough.
So, what size of pool to build? We do have to replace Ray. We could do it with a similar sized pool, that’s the cheapest. But our island has grown since Ray has been built and since Nakata has been built. Maybe the next larger size is reasonable.
Here is why we really need to question whether we want to go to an Olympic-sized pool: The issue, as you just pointed out, is crowding. But an Olympic-sized pool doesn’t address that in that it brings in more groups from the region while doing nothing to address our local crowding. So how does an Olympic-sized pool reduce crowding when it brings in more people? I don’t get it.
The user groups have weighed in that they’d like an Olympic-sized pool — and I’m a swimmer, gosh it’d be fun — but it’s just not addressing the problem we have and that is crowding. Kitsap County has five school districts … why you would ever put a regional school in the smallest school district I don’t know. That would mean that teams from the big school districts … would all come here, across the Agate Pass Bridge. It doesn’t make sense. The carbon footprint would be pretty bad. These teams don’t stay overnight, they don’t eat here in our restaurants, they don’t use our hotels, so the economic benefit would be pretty small.
I understand the user groups and I’m on board with it, I’d love an Olympic-sized pool, but I want to create a pool that will serve Bainbridge residents and that means something that will ease crowding and ease overcrowding and I can go down to the pool and maybe just get in some laps without waiting. Or our school teams will get in there without this horrible crunch going on. That’s where we should be, not bringing in people that will make it more crowded no matter how big we build it.
BIR: So in your mind a smaller pool more strategically designed is a better idea?
RP: Right. On top of that I would manage it a little better than it’s being managed now. That pool can be opened earlier in the morning, particular on the weekends. You have a crowd at the door on Saturdays and Sundays — I’m there. You could keep it open later. You could even do a kind of pricing thing where hours in which is isn’t used as much could be less expensive and then higher-use hours could be more expensive. There is so much you could do that’s not being done now.
The thing is the pool has always been a money loser and it will be. But we don’t want to build a bigger money loser. We want to just keep it for Bainbridge citizens who are the ones paying for it.
BIR: It seems the park district never stops hearing the pros and cons of off-leash dog areas. Are you open to reviewing and maybe revising those policies?
RP: When I moved here 30 years ago with my three small babies and my husband we could not go to any of the parks here with our babies, it was that bad, without getting run over by dogs and their owners. It was bad. It’s improved immensely over the years, it really has. Yes, we need more off-leash areas, especially in Winslow where we’re seeing increased density and there is not much. A pocket park doesn’t do it for exercising a dog.
I have some ideas and some new spots picked out, but our major parks should remain leashed areas, of course, that’s the law. But we should have some off-leash areas that are more adequate as we grow as a community.
BIR: Apparently that’s the grand battle in the world of parks, maintaining usability for everybody while also seeing that niche interests are accommodated.
RP: We’ve done a pretty good job, at least since I’ve been here. We’re making it happen. But new technology comes along, like e-bikes and mountain bikes earlier than that, and you have to adjust.
BIR. Which brings us to vandalism. How would you adjust the district’s policies or practices to discourage that, especially at Battle Point Park?
RP: I guess we need to, I hate to say this, but call in the police and prosecute and have more vigilance by parks staff. I’m an office administrator here at Bethany Lutheran and we have eight acres there, so I fight this vandalism all the time at our park-and-ride there.
The way it has worked for me there is to really keep a close relationship with the police and every time bring them up. And also to have staff, have my staff out there at times when you know you’re going to have problems — say, Fourth of July. Just sit there in a lawn chair with your cell phone in shifts and wait for somebody to come along. It’s bad that we’ve reached that time in our community’s life, but that’s frankly the way that I’ve found it works and I’d apply it to the parks if I am elected and that would be increased vigilance.
I’m over at Battle Point at odd hours, I live not too far away. So I run in the morning and at dusk once in a while and it’s easy to access and you can get in and never see police there and never see staff, except when they’re arriving for work. So what I would do is every time call the police, not just sometimes, but every time. Make a report, bring them in, ask them to look around and them have staff go ahead and come on in and help us with that.
BIR: Should the park district be in charge of rentals and concessions at the public dock and how does that affect the business that’s already there?
RP: I would vote no on that. I think we want to encourage our local small businesses and not compete with them. So I would vote no on that, but I would make the business climate for them friendly as a park commissioner and make sure their rent was low and make sure they have every advantage that we can give them so they can be a business here on Bainbridge Island.
BIR: Has there been anything in the past five or six years you feel the park district did wrong? Something you wish you’d been in the room for?
RP: Absolutely. These are small things, but at Battle Point I probably would not have put the disc golf course where they did. I think it’s threatening to people, especially older people who walk and think, ‘Gee, how am I going to dodge this frisbee that’s going 35 miles an hour and aiming at my head?’ When I walk my elderly mother through there I think, ‘Gee, I don’t feel safe.’
Also, I think along those same lines commissioners should start looking at things that aren’t used anymore. Not just at Battle Point, but take the little horse corral there, it’s not used like it used to be. Take inventory and when you put something in, it stays forever unless you make the decision to take it out.
Now the pickleball courts, that’s a good thing. I have a small concern because everybody seems to be pretty elderly and I wonder a little bit about 20 years from now, if that will be the same. But there’s so much momentum and they’ve made such a good case, they claim they have young users, so I’m willing to give it a try.
BIR: I understand the proposals for those courts have come back much higher than expected.
RP: Very much so, yeah. That’s one thing I want to do is work with the parks foundation to do some private fundraising and do that kind of thing to help ease the tax burden.
BIR: You’re touting the importance of fresh perspective. What are the benefits of that versus somebody who is perhaps more familiar with the system and current policies and programs and the history behind them.
RP: My opponent has run unopposed for three terms; that’s 18 years, and he’s asking for a fourth term so that would make it 24 years. That’s longer than a lot of people’s careers. Under no measurement of good government is that good government. That’s way too long. What happens, it’s getting better on the park commission, but too much institutional knowledge gets concentrated in too few people, so when those people leave you’re left with a gulf. This is particularly true with the parks district because you have some staff members, some important staff members, who are on the verge of retirement. It’s better to stagger terms more than they are so that this institutional knowledge can be carried forward. It’s especially true now that we have these big issues in front of us.
BIR: In your mind do you include being a woman as part of that fresh perspective? There is only one female commissioners now and historically they are the minority.
RP: Absolutely. There has always been only one in my time. Maybe long ago there was more than one.
BIR: Let’s talk about Sakai Park.
RP: It has the potential to be a jewel … right on the edge of the very, very dense Winslow area. [The architect] did a wonderful job with these beautiful buildings and centering them on the southwest corner, but when the parks district did a check with the community prior to their comp plan update that is in the midst now, community members came back and said, ‘Stop with all this building on this beautiful piece of property, we don’t want as much building we want trails.’ I kind of agree with that, I’m kind of a green person. I would take a look at all of those buildings and really probably reduce them and I would start with the [new] parks office. If you look at the design … a lot of it is just storage. Why would you use this beautiful piece of property as a storage locker for the parks?
Yes, the parks offices have to be rebuilt or they’re going to be condemned. But I’d probably put them downtown if we still have enough retail office. The office vacancy rate is getting better over time, but we could probably still rent something pretty cheap.
With all of those [new] buildings I might start with the field house because I see some traction on that. Yes, it’s very early, but if we are going to put development on [Sakai] we might start with the field house and here’s why: The seniors are asking for a second-floor track, and they probably deserve it because here they are living in cramped apartments; they don’t have anything here.
We’ve got multi-use courts down below that would ease what the schools can offer and would certainly help the parks in their offerings. So we might want to start with something like that, but these other buildings? Just too much.
BIR: Isn’t the point of the design that we can use as much or as little as we want of it over time?
RP: Absolutely, but that’s never spelled out in the plan. The plan is presented in its entirety with the entire price tag. So if my opponent says, ‘Oh no, she’s exaggerating.’ No, that’s how the plan was presented: all buildings built out with the big price tag and that’s what we as community members have to look at. The reality is we build incrementally.
BIR: But your issue is that we would’t know what each increment would cost by itself?
RP: That’s the only figure they gave us. They didn’t give us a figure for the field house or the parks offices or anything. They gave us the big figure.
There’s a lot of momentum, and there always has been, within the park board to ask for the biggest and ask for the best — and they’ve even expressed this in their meetings: Ask for the biggest and the best, taxpayers say no, and then you get the compromise. We saw this back 20 years ago when they wanted the Nakata pool. They asked for everything. They asked for a wave machine and all kinds of things. And the voters, it was a very acrimonious election, they said no. Bainbridge Island voters said no to a pool. It was very painful, it was a very expensive election and it forced the park district to pull out all the bells and whistles and come back with a proposal that passed.
We’re seeing this again, and we will see it again with the current makeup of the board. We’re going to see these huge projects pitched at the public, the public’s going to say no, and we’re going to come back. That’s true with the pool and I think it’s probably true of Sakai in the future. That’s the culture of the board, so I’m saying come out with good reasonable proposal first and then you don’t make all these enemies with the public. I see it happening all over again.
BIR: Does Bainbridge Island have enough park land?
RP: One of the great things about living here is the number of parks. It’s very unusual for a community to have this many parks. You can have as many parks as the community will bear and they’ve never to my knowledge said no to open space or parks. So I would say the answer is when we reach that level then that’s enough parks but we’re not there yet. So I would say we need more parks.
I’m particularly concerned about people on [the Winslow side] of High School Road in the urban core. I feel bad for them. I see them walking by my window all day long, there’s no place to really take a walk with the dogs and they’re walking on the church property and that’s fine, but I live over in Meadwomeer, on Koura [Road], and I can go to the Grand Forest, it’s my backyard … but down [there] you know, we’ve got to do something. That’s why I’m so concerned about Sakai.
May I speak about trails too?
BIR: Please do.
RP: I will continue the good work that the parks district has done with trails. I walk to work somedays through Mandus Olson and I have ideas for getting more of them. It’s scary walking from Koura down to High School Road. We need to get a good north-south trail going. The Sound to Olympic Trail would help a great deal and we need to really support that.
At the end of the day, if I get elected, I want people to say she was a great conservationist for Bainbridge. And if I can accomplish that, that’ll be enough.
BIR: Do you think seeing the reality of the first leg of the STO has made people a little gun-shy about building more trails?
RP: I think it turned out a little differently than we all thought, even whether it was on the right side of the road. But I think there is so much sentiment to have an expanded trail system here I think that bruise will heal and that we’ll go forward with that trail and many others.