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Bethel: Bye bye tacos, hello swimming pool

Jill Burke
Creative Commons

On America's northwestern coastline is a town so small it has only one national restaurant chain: Subway. The sandwich shop does well in Bethel, a remote Alaska town of about 6,200  along the Kuskokwim River, 40 miles inland from the Bering Sea.

So it’s no surprise that a scam suggesting Taco Bell was coming to town raised people's hopes. When it came to light that the rumor was a hoax, the fast-food retailer was inspired to do a one-time taco drop to the far flung community, accessible only by air or boat. 

That short-lived feast on Sunday was tasty. But a larger craving has haunted the region for decades -- the desire for a swimming pool.

Call it coincidence, but good luck seems to be dropping into the western Alaska hub this year. A few months ago, Gov. Sean Parnell signed off on a statewide budget that included $23 million for the pool project.

"I cried. I couldn't believe it," said Beverly Hoffman, one of a handful of mothers who'd started the campaign for a pool in the 1980s and now, with their children grown, has finally seen the vision take hold. 

Community raises $200,000

After years of scraping pennies together, holding $3 basketball games, hosting dances and movie nights, getting a few sizable donations and selling thousands of pounds of Christmas cookies, the mom-inspired community effort raised $200,000 -- tons of money for a grassroots effort in a small town, but not close to what would be needed to fund construction. 

Decades ago, after a year in which the region had experienced more than a dozen drowning deaths, the moms had decided enough was enough. "We all had young children and thought we've got to do something about it," Hoffman said of the movement's beginnings.

Bethel is located in the one of the poorest areas of Alaska, where two great rivers -- the Yukon and the Kuskokwim -- unravel as they meet the state's western edge and pour into the sea. Many families depend on the rivers for travel, fishing and hunting.

The pool will be the first to operate in the area for more than a generation. Bethel had a much smaller pool years ago, but it fell into disrepair and was lost to memory long ago, said Bethel City Manager Lee Foley.

Pool set to open in 2014

"Everybody is really ecstatic that after so many years (the pool) finally got approved," he said Tuesday, freshly back in town after traveling.

Foley missed out on the taco drop, and returned to find the city abuzz with people hoping someone would concoct a hoax to lure Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken to Bethel. But the really big "get" for 2012, he insisted, is the pool money.

Soon, the Bethel Aquatic Training and Health Center (BATH center) will become a reality.

Five years ago, city residents voted to tax themselves to create a funding stream for the pool's annual operating and maintenance costs. More recently, a new and more receptive city council was elected. Last year, area legislators decided to back the pool project, and it was considered a higher priority in the statewide budget than in years past. The stars had aligned. 

By 2014, Bethel could have a new place for children to safely learn to swim, and for people of all ages to stay fit year-round. 

If the city can get the special pilings it needs delivered by fall, construction on the competition-length, four-lane pool could begin in 2013. The pilings need to be self-cooling, since the ground below is permafrost. The center is designed to also feature a room for weight lifting.

Funding for health, wellness 

Hoffman is relieved the state finally saw value in something beyond buildings to battle social ills. She'd watched any number of buildings go up over the years: treatment centers for alcohol and inhalant abuse, big jails, women's shelters.

At 60 years old, she's twice the age she was when she first began talking about bringing a pool to Bethel. Suicide, obesity, depression, alcoholism have all received attention and investment. And now, finally, so is a different aspect of health and wellness: recreation in a safe, positive place. 

Her dream isn't fully realized, though. Adding a gym to the BATH center is next in her sights.

"There's still work to be done," she said. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com