By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BIG SKY – The West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park is the busiest gateway to Yellowstone. As such, the town of West Yellowstone sees an influx of thousands of visitors each year. Within the town itself, local attractions include the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, Yellowstone Historic Center Museum, Playmill Theatre and Yellowstone Giant Screen.
A recently updated proposal would add to these facilities, establishing a unique science and swim center for the enjoyment of residents and visitors alike.
Robert Lindstrom, a resident of West Yellowstone and the author of “Laboratory Yellowstone and the DNA Revolution: A Field Guide to Thermophiles,” is spearheading the project, to be named the Thermus Aquaticus Learning and Swim Center. It has been proposed as an opportunity to connect residents, park visitors, universities, researchers and educators.
The idea emerged nearly a decade ago to construct a high-end swimming facility in West Yellowstone. The original prospectus, prepared by Deb and Scott Clark, includes a handful of dedicated pools, from competition and lap, to children’s, as well as a full gym and restaurant.
In recent months, however, Lindstrom has partnered with the Clarks to add another dimension to the project proposal. Under Lindstrom’s vision, the swim center would see the addition of a science center, complete with a lecture hall, teaching laboratory and reference library.
The facility, composed of an aqua park and education center, would focus on telling the story of Thermus aquaticus, a hot water microorganism discovered in Yellowstone by Thomas D. Brock in 1972. This thermophile has lent itself to important scientific research by enabling the development of the Polymerase Chain Reaction, which has allowed for ancestry DNA sequencing, personalized medicine, and more.
“Thermus aquaticus means ‘hot water’ in Greek,” Lindstrom said. “The Taq [Thermus aquaticus] Aqua Park will have hot pots resembling the natural hot springs of Yellowstone, as well as regulation-sized public swimming pools, a 100-foot waterslide, and other exercise programs for our winter-bound residents.”
After organizing as a nonprofit, directors of the Thermus Aquaticus Learning and Swim Center are seeking funding and support for the venture.
Pierre Martineu, a member of the West Yellowstone Town Council, said he appreciates the idea but has concerns regarding its sustainability.
“It’s a great idea on paper, but we’re worried it doesn’t pencil out,” he said on behalf of the Town Council. “I think it could be a nice addition to the town if it is scaled down and managed properly.”
Martineu added that West Yellowstone is a tourism-driven economy relying on the Yellowstone National Park visitor season. Should the facility come to fruition, he worries about what would happen during the shoulder seasons when few visitors come to the area.
“We are a very cyclical economy,” he said. “The problem is the park closes … and nothing else is going on.”
Marysue Costello, the director of the West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, agreed that there could be challenges, but said she is in support of the project. Costello recently submitted a letter of support to the project organizers on behalf of the chamber, which will be used to secure funding.
“It could provide an additional activity for people,” she said. “The educational component gives it a different cachet. Universities could get involved. … It certainly could be a great thing.”
She added that West Yellowstone is a great place for a science center like the one proposed, as “some of the best thermal features are within 30 to 40 miles from here.”
In terms of employment, Costello said it’s a challenge for every business in town, but the situation could be different for the science and swim center. “I think because of what the focus is, you might have a pool of employees that would be interested in the educational aspect,” she said. “You may open the door to a pool of employees that [other employers] may not.”
In addition to requests for letters of support, the nonprofit’s board of directors is seeking funding from Hoffmann-La Roche, a Swiss pharmaceutical company who owns the U.S. patent for Thermus aquaticus DNA polymerase.