City looking into options to adjust aquatics center due to high foundation costs

The city and their selected design team has been working on the selected site for the Aim High/Big Sky aquatics and recreation facility.

The city did a land swap with Great Falls Public Schools for a 10 acre parcel, adjacent to the soccer complex.

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Once the city had approval for the $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense toward the estimated $20 million project, approval from the commission to spend money on the project and to swap land with the school district, they started geotechnical work on the selected site.

During the Dec. 1 meeting, City Manager Greg Doyon updated the City Commission on the soils at the property.

He said that the soils aren’t great and bedrock is around 60 feet below the surface.

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TD&H, the engineering partner of the design team with LPW Architecture, created an estimate for construction of the foundation at $95 per square foot, or $2.6 million.

To absorb that additional cost, the team is already looking at reducing the size of the facility to stay within the $20 million budget, but that will also reduce the city’s ability to generate revenue since it would have less space, Doyon said.

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Doyon said he’s asked the DoD agency overseeing the grant if the city can look at a location with better soils and is awaiting a response. He said they’d also reached out to Malmstrom Air Force Base officials for their thoughts on finding a new site with better soils.

Doyon said that early on several other sites had been identified as possibilities, primarily large park areas throughout the city.

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Doyon said that they had selected to GFPS site near the base for the grant and proximity to the base was a factor in being successful with the grant but with the new soil information that the military officials might be willing to adjust since the added foundation costs might prevent the city from being able to proceed with the project.

If the DoD approves a new site, the design team will immediately look at soils, Doyon said, but if the answer is no, they’ll fully price out a foundation for the selected site by the base to determine if it’s possible to move forward at all.

Doyon said he’s “optimistic that there will be some support when people understand the challenges on that site.”

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Commissioner Rick Tryon asked why the city didn’t conduct test the soil conditions on the site before selecting it.

Doyon said they knew there would be soil issues, as are common on many areas of Great Falls, but that they couldn’t do tests or borings until they had the authority to do so, which had to be granted by commissioners and that they didn’t want to spend money on testing without knowing the grant would be approved.

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Commissioner Mary Moe said she didn’t want another pool that sinks and for the city to be saddled with another fiscal problem. She said she’d been opposed to closing the Natatorium and was “thrilled” with the new aquatics facility since it’s a community asset, but doesn’t want it to tie the city to more debt.

Doyon said he understands the frustration with the process, which due to the timing of the federal grant, was speedier than the traditional city process for major projects, but “at the end of the day, if we’re not able to make it work…we tried valiantly.”

Doyon said that it was unlikely that the city could have come up with the funding for such a large capital project on its own so they took the opportunity to pursue the grant for the community.