People work out on a January afternoon at the Skagway Recreation Center. (Emily Files)

People work out on a January afternoon at the Skagway Recreation Center. (Emily Files)

Skagway’s recreation center offers everything from Pilates and aerial tissue classes to spinning and rock climbing. An expansion plan is in the works to build more space for activities. But one part of that project is causing debate: the swimming pool. Some residents think a pool is needed to teach children to swim and improve quality of life. But others think it’s a luxury Skagway can’t afford.

On a Tuesday afternoon in January, dozens of kids run and roller skate around the rec center.

“We’re looking to expand because we have completely outgrown ourselves,” Rec center Director Katherine Nelson says.

She leads the way around the building, showing areas where space is cramped, like the weight room and cardio floor.

“This is our spinning bike area, we just got 15 new bikes, which are amazing. And then [there’s] just a whole bunch of cardio equipment.”

The spinning bikes and cardio equipment are several feet away from each other.

“It is rather distracting when you’re teaching a [spinning] class, and you’ve got music playing, for the people who are doing cardio.”

Nelson says there’s also not enough room for group fitness classes.

“This place is highly class-driven and we have great instructors and there’s prime times. So when you’re offering yoga at 5:30, somebody might want a body-pump class.”

She says the center’s activities have been squeezed for space for years now, especially during the summer.

“The one thing that we really don’t want people to forget about is the most important need of this facility is to expand it so that we can maintain what we’re already doing in a safe way.”

The reason Nelson thinks people might forget about that? The swimming pool.

“I think it is crazy how many people in this town where we live on water that cannot swim,” said resident Beth Smith said at a borough assembly meeting last year.

Smith is one of many who petitioned the assembly to support an aquatic center as part of the rec center expansion. But the hefty price tag, up to $20 million, plus yearly operation costs, sparked concern.

“Everything that we have in this town has to be subsidized, we don’t have the luxury of a population that can sustain anything,” said Assemblyman Tim Cochran.

The assembly considered a one-percent sales tax increase that would help pay for the pool, but the members were split.

An ad hoc pool working group decided to seek the professional help of Colorado-based USA Swimming. The group advocates for community pools, with the slogan ‘saving pools saves lives.’ USA Swimming’s Mick and Sue Nelson will host a ‘Custom Build and Program a Pool’ Conference April 12 and 13 in Skagway. The conference will cost the municipality between $3,000 and $5,000.

Assembly member Spencer Morgan chairs the pool working group.

“We just want to get the word out because the more people we have there to give input from the community, the better idea we can get about what type of facility we are looking at,” Morgan said. “Whether it’s the Taj Mahal, whether it’s something to a lesser extent, whether it’s a competition-sized pool. [USA Swimming has] done this in other communities and I think it will give us a better idea of what we’re looking at going forward.”

Nelson has been working on the expansion plans for eight years. She says she doesn’t want the debate about the pool to hold back progress on what the center needs more urgently: space for its existing services.

“It would be nice just to know, to have a direction and get something done,” Nelson said. “Because in reality, the idea to expand the weight room was a necessity and then it was just ‘come on let’s revisit the pool.’ And the whole pool is holding us back from actually getting what we need right now.”

Nelson is in favor of the aquatic center. But she says even if there is no pool, moving forward with something is better than nothing.