Hat in hand, Sonoma Splash asks for $500K for pool project

The desire for a community swimming pool in Sonoma Valley is nearly universal. But as government-watchers saw during Monday night’s Sonoma City Council meeting, the devil is in the details.

Currently those details are of a financial nature, after pool advocates asked the city to float them a half-million dollars to help with the purchase of Paul’s Resort, a six-acre property on Verano Avenue.

That spot is “a perfect location” due to its accessibility, said Paul Favaro, president of the Sonoma Valley Health and Recreation Association (SVHRA), aka Sonoma Splash. He cited its proximity to Maxwell Farms Regional Park, and the fact that Verano can handle the traffic.

“So we don’t think that there’s a better location in the city or elsewhere in the Valley,” Favaro told council members Steve Barbose, David Cook and Laurie Gallian. (The other two council members, Ken Brown and Tom Rouse, recused themselves because they also sit on the SVHRA board.)

The catch, though, is that the group is still $500,000 short – with a deadline looming to close escrow by Aug. 19. So Sonoma Splash is asking for the city’s help in bridging the gap.

That’s where things got complicated, as city leaders and pool advocates discussed how the city might help Sonoma Splash meet its goal in such a short period of time.

In opening comments, City Manager Carol Giovanatto gave examples of four different options that council members could chose from: a forgivable loan, a bridge loan, a capital grant – basically a gift “with no expectation of repayment and no security” – or, she said, they could do nothing at all.

Whatever they chose, Giovanatto said, any funding would come out of the city’s general fund reserves – specifically, the special projects reserves, which currently has a balance of $1.84 million.

She added that direction was needed now, so that staff can put something together ahead of the council’s Aug. 18 meeting – one day before the group was scheduled to close escrow.

Several members of the public urged the council to help. David Eichar said he learned to swim at age 5 in a community pool, “and it probably did save my life.”

At age 10, he said, Eichar was boating on the Delta and got thrown into the water without a life preserver.

Even Carol Englehorn, an 11-year resident of the Paul’s Resort housing unit, said that “for the record I support the pool,” even though it would mean the property’s nine residents would have to relocate.

Barbose, Cook and Gallian said they shared these sentiments – building a new pool has been a stated council goal since 2009 – but the question of how to help with financing while also protecting the city’s money was a hard one to sort out.

“The more I learn about this project, the more perfect it seems in terms of location and the coming together of people in the community to fulfill a need that has long been unmet,” Barbose said. But he added, “having said that I’m also charged with being a careful steward” of the city’s money.

A lawyer with real estate expertise, Barbose seemed comfortable with the subject matter. He said he supported a loan for the group, rather than a grant, and insisted on a guarantor to back it for the city’s security.

As he, the city attorney and others delved further into precisely how to help Sonoma Splash, it became clear that a special meeting would be necessary if the group hoped to close escrow by Aug. 19.

By the time enough details were hashed out, Councilmember Cook, acting as mayor in Rouse’s absence, had forgotten to call for a vote. The three council members backtracked and approved a motion 3-0, with Cook explaining that they “have given direction to the staff of everything that we said.”

A special meeting to further the discussion was set for 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7, in the Emergency Operation Center.

Paul’s Resort has a storied history in the Valley, operating for many decades as a resort, restaurant and nightclub. In early 2013, the resort’s main hall burned down; owners Roland and Yvonne Thibault said they were devastated, as they had hoped to restore the place to its former glory.

“But time moves on,” the Thibaults said in a prepared statement. They said they saw sale of the site to Sonoma Splash “as an opportunity for the historic recreation use of family property to continue long into the future.”