City, GFPS discussing possible parkland swap for proposed aquatics facility

Officials with the City of Great Falls and the Great Falls Public Schools district met Sept. 8 to discuss a possible land swap for the proposed joint indoor aquatics facility near Malmstrom Air Force Base.

The city made the short list to be considered for a Defense Department grant for $10 million toward the project, which is an estimated $20 million total.

The city owns land near Loy Elementary that it is considering using for the aquatics and recreation facility and the preliminary designs were made to fit that site.

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But, GFPS owns a 10 acre site across the street, adjacent to the soccer park, that the city is interested in using for the the pool facility since it’s larger and has better soil conditions.

In exchange, the city is discussing swapping six parcels from Kranz Park, near Great Falls High, to GFPS. The two entities had been in talks several years ago about letting the district use a portion of the park for a parking lot.

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The GFPS board voted in late August to deem the 10 acres by Loy as surplus property and is expected to finalize that action during their Sept. 14 meeting.

Superintendent Tom Moore said he and City Manager Greg Doyon has been talking for several months about the possibility of a land swap for the proposed aquatics facility.

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“We consider this to be a mutually beneficial project,” Moore said. The Loy property, he said, is “ideal and optimum for this project.”

Three school board members, Jan Cahill, Jeff Gray and Bill Bronson, served as an ad hoc committee of the board to discuss the possibility with city staff during the Sept. 8 meeting.

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Overall, they said they were supportive of the swap and that the proposed aquatics facility could be a benefit to the community at large though there were details to be negotiated related to the swap.

The plan for Kranz would likely resemble the plan developed in 2018 by TD&H for GFPS during the bond construction project at Great Falls High.

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In March 2018, the district asked the city to use about a third of the 2.57 acre park at 1605 4th Ave. S. to create about 100 parking spaces.

By July 2018, that plan was on hold.

The Department of Defense is set to make determinations on the grant awards by Sept. 15 and if successful, the city has until Sept. 23 to accept the grant and then a year to break ground and five years to complete construction.

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Under the grant rules, the facility must be owned and operated by the city.

If the city is successful, it would fund the other $10 million of the project with park maintenance district funds and would close the existing recreation center and operate the single joint aquatics and recreation facility on the east end of town.

The facility would include multiple pools, basketball courts, fitness equipment and other amenities, according to Steve Herrig, Park and Rec director, and the preliminary designs.

Herrig’s predecessor, Joe Petrella, had advocated for a combined aquatics and recreation facility and it was mentioned in the 2016 park and rec master plan. At the time, Petrella and the consultant had estimated the project would cost about $20 million.

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School officials asked about the possibility of closing the portion of 17th Street in between Kranz Park and the high school campus but city staff indicated that would likely be a separate discussion and could be more complicated since utilities run under the street and it could impact the larger transportation network.

During the meeting, the three GFPS board members indicated general support to move forward with a land swap and the matter will be discussed at the Sept. 14 meeting with the full school board.

Any land swap, sale or lease of city owned parkland has to follow a specific process in the city’s code that includes public hearings.