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

People work out on a January 2016 afternoon at the Skagway Recreation Center. (Emily Files)

The Skagway Borough Assembly is still divided on whether now is the right time to invest millions of dollars in a recreation center expansion and pool. At a meeting Thursday, assembly members debated the project. For now, they haven’t made a decision. But one possibility is to send it to a public vote.

Thursday’s meeting began with some compelling testimony.

“Wouldn’t you like to be responsible for saving the lives of Skagway’s children?” asked Abigail Tidlow-Tranel.

She was one of several fourth and fifth graders who made their case to the assembly. Fifth grade teach Mary Thole is on the rec center expansion board. She says she encouraged the students to write about their opinions of the project.

“Dear Skagway Assembly members, are the kids always bored and on cell phones in Skagway?” asked Kenadie Cox. “Um, yes. Kids and adults need fitness.”

Cox and others talked about how cramped the rec center is.

“Are the kids of Skagway expected to topple over the grown-ups because of no space?” Cox said.

She also brought up the importance of learning to swim.

“When I go on my grandparents’ boat, I am so uncomfortable because I can’t swim,” Cox said.

A few adults spoke in favor of the rec center expansion and pool as well.

“If you don’t create a culture, the culture will create itself,” said Cory Nelson. “And if we don’t start investing in projects like this that promote health, activity and community, we’re kind of leaving the future up to chance.”

Some of these same arguments were made a year ago, when the assembly considered an earlier iteration of the rec center expansion and aquatic wellness center. Some assembly members balked at the cost, and asked committees cut down on ‘bells and whistles.’

The current proposal is a $17 million expansion and pool addition. Proponents say the additional exercise space and four-lane pool would meet Skagway’s needs without going overboard.

All of the assembly members said a rec center expansion and pool would be great. But they differed over whether this is the best time to spend $17 million on such a project.

“I honestly believe a majority of people in this town want a swimming pool,” said Jay Burnham.

“I agree with you wholeheartedly, I want one,” replied Tim Cochran. “But I don’t want a $20 million pool building if we can’t pay for it.”

Burnham said his belief in the rec center and pool is one reason he ran for assembly. He and Angela Grieser defended the project to their more reluctant peers.

“There are generations that have grown up here that can’t swim,” said Grieser. “Because there’s always something more important, there’s always some sort of financial instability that nope we can’t spend money on the pool. And that’s what the answers always going to be.”

Assembly members Cochran, Steve Burnham Jr. and Orion Hanson all mentioned uncertainty about the future of the port as one reason for their hesitation. Skagway’s economy is heavily dependent on cruise ships. But the future of cruise ship docks and the rest of the port is in limbo right now because of access issues with the private company that controls much of the waterfront.

“What happens if the ships don’t come?” said Hanson. “What happens if there’s some sort of the horrible event and there’s not tourists? We can’t just assume that it’s gonna keep cooking along and everything’s hunky dory and everybody’s making money. I don’t think we can put this forth until we have a plan of how we pay for it.”

The pool and rec center committees did propose a plan: a one percent year-round retail sales tax hike, which would pay for general obligation bonds.

“I’m not in favor of it being dedicated solely to one project,” said Steve Burnham Jr. “Because then we have a sixth of our sales tax going to one thing and the other five percent going to pay for everything.”

Last year, the assembly considered a one percent sales tax increase. But the members were split on whether it should go toward just the rec center or major projects in general.

A few people voiced support for the assembly to send the rec center/pool project to a public vote. But first, the assembly finance committee will weigh in.

Considering how divided the assembly is, Mayor Mark Schaefer said it may be challenging to get approval to send the project to a public vote.