When will MJC aquatics center reopen? Frustrated students, community members want to know

The Dave Ashleigh Aquatics Center on the Modesto Junior College East Campus remains closed since an explosion in the pool supply room on Father’s Day 2018. A college district official said the two pools could reopen in summer 2020.
The Dave Ashleigh Aquatics Center on the Modesto Junior College East Campus remains closed since an explosion in the pool supply room on Father’s Day 2018. A college district official said the two pools could reopen in summer 2020.

An explosion the morning of Father’s Day 2018 in the pool supply room closed the MJC aquatics center. More than 10 months later, the ongoing insurance investigation, the need for improvements to the center’s two 15-year-old pools and required work to bring the facility up to ADA standards have kept it closed.

A Yosemite Community College District official who visited the Dave Ashleigh Aquatics Center on the Modesto Junior College East Campus on Wednesday said it’s not expected to reopen until — and this is the best case — summer 2020.

Meantime, MJC student athletes who depend on the pools have grown frustrated, as have others who use the facilities. Second-year student Izzy Newnam, who plays water polo and swims for MJC, said the pool closure has hurt the teams.

During the water polo season, the players had to travel for every game, and had to practice at Johansen High School, out on Claus Road. “So not only is it time-consuming,” Newnam said, “but gas has gotten pricey, and it’s really difficult to play a sport that I’ve paid for and not get the most out of it.”

When the pool was open, she said, she was able to “make memories” and bond with her teammates. “And now we’re just so focused on traveling, and we’re stressing on where we swim next.”

Fellow swimmer and water polo player Christine Berry, a freshman, said the teams feel the loss of their “home court advantage.” Time in their own locker room before and after practices and competitions is important to rallying team spirit, she said. But with practices now at Johansen, the players swoop in after another team finishes, then have to get out afterward so facilities can close, Berry said.

A large explosion on the campus of Modesto Junior College's east campus near the pool around 6:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 17, 2018, could be heard and felt in nearby neighborhoods.

Another problem is that with the pool sitting empty, it’s harder to recruit new athletes, she said. “A lot of people are, like, they don’t even have a pool, do they even have a team?”

Brent Bohlender, aquatics coach at Johansen, said he thinks that’s the worst part of it for the MJC athletes. Some students decide to try a sport in large part because they see it happening on their campus. “You might attract kids to the activity” simply because they go by the pool frequently and see peers enjoying it, he said. That can’t happen if it sits unused.

“It sure feels like it’s harder to get kids,” MJC water polo and swim coach Eric Fischer said, “because I’m sitting in the office and see kids look at (the closed pools) and think, ‘What’s going on here?’ and laugh and walk by. The frustration is nothing looks like it’s getting done.”

He said he knows there is progress being made, but it’s in the background, where students can’t see it. He gets questions he doesn’t have the answers to. He had a student tell him he wasn’t returning to the program next year if there’s no pool, “and I told him I can’t make that happen. ... So it does affect our program, both the students who are in it and those who aren’t.”

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Damage remains unrepaired Wednesday, April 24, 2019, at the men’s physical education building, which suffered the brunt of the blast on Father’s Day 2018 at the Modesto Junior College aquatics center. Deke Farrow

Berry said the impact of the pool closure has rippled beyond MJC teams, also weakening the college’s community connections. She cited groups like MJC-supported Blue Tide Aquatics moving elsewhere, at least temporarily.

Blue Tide now uses the Enochs High pool, but for months had to go out to the Oakdale High facility. In October and November, a Blue Tide parent, Tamra McCarthy, emailed MJC and YCCD officials to complain that little was being done to support the programs suffering from the pool closure. In one, she wrote, “What was once a living, breathing, active center for swim, has ceased to exist.”

Judy Lanchester, director of facilities planning and operations for the Yosemite Community College District, said programs held at the pool continue at other sites until the aquatics center reopens. The college’s swim classes are at Johansen and Downey. The community education lessons for kids are at Modesto High, and the adult lessons and water aerobics are at Davis.

If she could have the pools open tomorrow, she would, Lanchester said. “I understand and empathize with” all who’ve been affected by the closure, “but there are a lot of processes in a project of this magnitude.”

Early on, the explosion was referred to as a “pool systems failure.” Fire officials said the blast appeared to originate in a carbon dioxide system in the pool room, but the college has not released a definitive explanation.

Lanchester said the cause remains under investigation by the insurer and won’t be released until the report is done. At the aquatics center Wednesday, she ran through damage caused, including:

  • Gymnasium: broken windows, doors and lights, and electrical and HVAC systems that had to be evaluated.
  • Library: Broken windows and doors, and electrical and gas systems and boilers that required evaluation.

  • Men’s physical education building, which was closest to the blast and suffered the most damage: broken windows and doors, structural damage to the roof line and exterior walls, a broken skylight, a damaged electrical panel, and HVAC and gas lines that needed evaluation.

  • Women’s PE building: broken doors and lights, and electrical and HVAC evaluation.

  • Educational offices: broken windows, doors and lights, and electrical and gas evaluation.

  • Pool area: fence damage, mechanical damage, heating system and tank damage. The storage area suffered “full failure,” Lanchester said.

Last summer, the primary focus was getting the buildings back in operating shape for the fall term, she said. Then, attention turned to the pool area.

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A beverage vending machine lies destroyed after a large explosion at the aquatics center on the Modesto Junior College East Campus early Sunday, June 17, 2018. The blast could be heard for miles, and the aquatics center is expected to remain closed at least until June 2020. Marty Bicek Modesto Bee file

On top of the blast damage, the pools need replastering, because they’re about 15 years old. But changes in Americans with Disabilities Act requirements over the years necessitate additional broad improvements, Lanchester said.

“The DSA (Division of the State Architect) process, which is our governing agency, takes a look at this particular area where we’re going to rebuild,” she said, “and they look at it from not only where it’s positioned currently. So it’s not so much put it back (the way it was), we need to make sure it’s ADA compliant.”

The men’s and women’s PE buildings and pool area all are not up to code, Lanchester said. “Some of the things they look at are the path of travel (including incline, from the surrounding buildings and from the handicapped parking spaces nearby, which also may need changes) and the ability for an ADA person to be able to come into this facility.”

In the fall, YCCD began working with the DSA on the pool project planning, and in December, the insurer gave the OK for the district to begin project drawings, Lanchester said. Drawings are now in DSA hands for review, she said.

When the insurance report is done and pool project drawings are approved, the bidding process will begin to award the construction job. The estimated cost includes more than $2 million that is covered by insurance, and more than $1 million the district will pay for.

The district has a responsibility to be a good steward of taxpayer money, Lanchester said, which is why the replastering is being done at the same time as the improvements that surround the pools. It would be wasteful of money and water to fill them temporarily, then drain them for replastering, she said.

The long time line of the pool project is not unusual, Lanchester said. “Normally, if I’m planning a large project like this,” she said, “it will take me, from budget and inception time, a couple of years.”

The insurance investigation process can be a lengthy one, she added. “What I understand from other community colleges that have gone through something like this is it takes quite a bit of time. … One person we heard from, there was some sort of shed that a tree fell on, and they’re two years into that.”

The YCCD Board of Trustees is set to receive an update on the pool project at its May 8 meeting.