Geothermal energy still a possibility
After weighing several options, Teton Valley Aquatics and the City of Driggs have chosen a location for a future aquatic facility at the southeast corner of 5th Street and Little Avenue. The land owners have agreed to donate five acres to the city, and the partners are ready to pursue test drilling and a capital campaign.
The city had narrowed the search down to two sites that fit the criteria of being over five acres in size, in town, near the schools, on a collector road. The first possible site, south of the airport and east of the elementary school, was recently annexed into the city, but during that process it became apparent that neighbors were concerned with increased traffic on LeGrand Pierre Avenue and Booshway and the unfinished state of the road network.
“It was a good reminder to us that LeGrand Pierre needs to be connected to Ski Hill Road,” said Driggs community development director Doug Self, who has been leading the city’s efforts to build a pool. “But we didn’t want to necessarily tie the aquatic facility project to a built-in controversy in that neighborhood.”
Both sites would need roughly the same amount of infrastructure improvements, including road extension and water and sewer connections, but the 5th Street site will require the paving of South 5th and Johnson, a project that is already a high priority for the city for multiple reasons.
Self added that the LeGrand Pierre lot is “devoid of natural vegetation,” whereas the lot next to the skate park has ample mature trees and shrubs, which would save money in landscaping and screening for the project and make it more attractive to passersby.
At a special meeting on July 13, the Driggs City Council unanimously approved the 5th Street site. The next step is to work with the land owner, Ball Ventures, an Idaho Falls real estate investment company. The company has informally committed to donating five acres of the property to the city.
In the Driggs draft comprehensive plan, that corridor of land along Ski Hill Road between 5th Street and Teton Creek (much of which is owned by Ball Ventures) is reserved as open space and wildlife habitat.
Teton Valley Aquatics and Driggs have met with the partners of the Teton Creek Corridor Project to discuss a possible conservation easement on the remaining property not dedicated to the aquatics facility.
“We hope we can establish momentum to fulfill this vision,” Self said about working with other nonprofits on a unified plan for the corridor.
TVA executive director Jessica Pozzi joined the team at the beginning of 2020 and said that while COVID shut down the nonprofit’s water safety and education programs, it was actually something of a boon for her. Before the pandemic, she found it incredibly challenging to schedule swim lessons because there are no public pools in the valley.
“We want to offer a lot of programs but we can’t do it without our own facility,” Pozzi said. “The bright side of COVID is that I’ve been able to give 100 percent of my attention to the facility. I’ve hunkered down and focused on looking at these sites and having these conversations.”
Once the property has been secured, the next step is to drill a well with the hope of hitting hot water. Dick Weinbrandt, a former TVA board member with decades of experience in petroleum engineering, plans to fund the drill, which could cost half a million dollars. The Idaho National Laboratory recently completed a free study and the results seem positive; there’s a good chance that drilling in town will yield a pressurized geothermal energy source, an integral part of the aquatic facility plan.
In a feasibility study performed last year, consultants determined that an aquatic facility with geothermal energy has the potential to turn a profit, as heating costs will be lower and the facility would have additional appeal to tourists.
Once the well has been drilled, TVA will take charge and launch a capital campaign. Pozzi was hired in part because of her fundraising experience, and she’s ready to lead the effort.
“It’s a very strategic process that requires a lot of planning,” she said about a capital campaign. It could be the largest capital campaign the valley has ever seen; in the feasibility study, Phase I of the facility, an outdoor seasonal pool with an indoor reception area and locker rooms, will cost around $7 million. The addition of year-round hot pools increases that cost by $3 million, but based on data collected from Lava Hot Springs, those hot pools could net $350,000 per year of profit.
If drilling does not yield a geothermal jackpot, TVA and Driggs will need to find other ways to fund the operating costs of an aquatic facility. Pozzi said that TVA will be exploring sustainable funding options, including grants, private donations, and public partnerships. For now, her goal during the Tin Cup is to raise the funds to keep the operation afloat (pun intended) so that the nonprofit can keep moving toward an aquatic facility.