Visitors and Mt. Edgecumbe High School students cheer as the first student jumps into the pool during an open house for the new Mt. Edgecumbe High School Aquatic Facility Friday. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

The Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatics Center opened with a splash on Friday (05-04-18) in Sitka. The $26 million swimming pool is a short walk from the All-Alaska boarding school. Though hampered by construction setbacks, school officials were able to open the pool a few days before graduation. Outgoing seniors jumped at the chance to test the waters. 

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A group of Mt. Edgecumbe boys are standing in their swim trunks, trading glances at each other to see who will be the first Brave to get in. “Can we go?,” one student asks. “Are we allowed to get in or what?,” another inquires.

And then…the student body president, Eric Handeland, tiptoes to the edge of the tallest diving board. The 9th, 10th, and 11th graders, who are supposed to be heading back to class, are instead lining the perimeter, cell phones held up in camera mode.

(Splash and cheers)

That is the sound of the first Mt. Edgecumbe student cannonball. After a ribbon cutting ceremony, the Athabascan dance group led the student body into the building.

The windows are floor to ceiling, the walls cream-colored, and the pool is a tropical blue. There’s eight lanes in the 25-yard direction and five lanes in the 25-meter direction, with plans to install a slide and a climbing wall that hangs over the water.

Senator Bert Stedman watches the scene unfold from the lobby. “They looked really excited. You watch them go around the pool and see the expressions on their faces…they’re excited,” Stedman said.

The pool will be host swim classes for the students and eventually, be open to other entities, like the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alaska State Trooper academy, swim clubs, and the general public for a fee.

But the building isn’t quite finished yet. Senator Bert Stedman ticks off what’s left to be done. “Getting the climbing wall in, the water slide, order the bleachers, and then we have to look at the fiscal situation to take a look at paving the parking lot and doing the grounds.”

Stedman says the capital funds are there to finish the building, but not for operating the pool – an estimated $500,000 in annual, depending on the hours of operation. “I would like to see it eventually break even after 3-4 years, or get very close. But if we end up a couple hundred out, that’s very reasonable,” Stedman said.

The aquatic facility got its start as a $20-million item on a statewide bond issue, approved by Alaska voters in 2010. The legislature later approved an additional $6 million.

While the project had its supporters, it had its critics as well. Mt. Edgecumbe student Mackenzie Smith of Bethel wished the money had been spent on another academic building or a new dormitory. “Some of the classes are pretty small and I think if we were to expand either the classes or the dorms more, we might be more productive than we already are.

Stedman doesn’t disagree with her, saying, “We’re not done at Mt. Edgecumbe yet.” He continued, “We’ve got classroom expansion that needs to be done. Before I retire out of the Senate I’d like to see a new boys dorm. Last time I was there, there was three to four boys per room for one desk. We’ll work with Department of Ed on what capital projects we’re going to do at Mt. Edgecumbe, but this is not the last one.”

As for this pool, which is nearly two decades in the making, Stedman is happy to see it – nearly- complete.