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Laura J. Gardner | The Journal Gazette
Eliza Leonard, 9, enjoys time with her friends at Burnworth Community Pool in Columbia City, a pool that lost $43,000 in 2011.

Is your city pool still viable? Don’t hold your breath

Operating costs submerge profits

– In many cities and towns, spending summers at the local community pool has become a way of life for neighborhood kids.

But, can cities still afford them?

Columbia City’s swimming pool lost about $40,000 last year. Bluffton’s lost nearly $50,000. In Wabash, the city pool’s expenses exceeded revenue by more than $70,000. The only city-owned pool in northeast Indiana to show a profit was New Haven’s Jury Pool.

As municipalities across the country struggle with dwindling tax dollars, a recession and soaring operating costs, officials are faced with many difficult decisions. That includes whether to keep pools open, close them or spend millions of dollars to renovate them. Many were built 40 to 50 years ago or more.

The standard pools of yesterday that served as a gathering place for neighborhood children are disappearing and being replaced by a new type of family-friendly aquatic park featuring multiple water attractions, said New Haven’s park superintendent, Mike Clendenen.

New Haven has two pools, Meadowbrook and Jury. The city closed a third site – New Haven Pool – in 2008 when officials decided to spend $4.1 million to renovate Jury Pool, which also closed that year because of safety concerns and rising maintenance costs.

The pool was transformed into an aquatics park with several pools and features such as water domes, ground sprays, fancy slides and even a large, tipping bucket of water.

Jennifer Brant of New Haven has bought season passes for herself and her three children, ages 6, 7 and 14. Her husband pays separately on the occasions when he can join them.

Brant said she used to go to Northside Pool in Fort Wayne, but Jury Pool now has all of the same great water attractions her family enjoyed at Northside.

“They did the right thing,” Brant said of the newly renovated pool.

Clendenen expects profits to decrease as the newness wears off, but he does not expect the losses to be close to what they were in the past.

While Jury pool made about $40,000 after reopening in 2011, Meadowbrook Pool lost about $43,500, Clendenen said. But that’s still good when compared with about $134,000 lost each year when all three pools were open, he said.

People were not opposed to renovating Jury Pool, but some seemed to think the extra water features were unnecessary, Clendenen said.

But since opening, business has been brisk, Clendenen said.

The first weekend in June the pool recorded 2,238 visitors, the highest number the pool has seen, Clendenen said.

“I think that shows that people want these kinds of amenities,” he said.

Down to 3

Perry Ehresman, deputy director of leisure services for the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department, said Clendenen is probably right.

“The first couple of years after we renovated Northside Pool and turned it into an aquatics center, we also made a profit,” Ehresman said.

Fort Wayne closed Lawton Pool in 1982 when Northside opened and closed Swinney Pool in 2009. There are also eight free splash parks in the city.

Closing Swinney Pool saves the city between $50,000 and $60,000 a year, but officials will revisit the issue and decide this summer whether to keep the pool closed or reopen it in 2013, Ehresman said.

Two of city’s three remaining pools, Northside and McMillen, have been renovated and converted to aquatics centers with many other attractions in addition to the pool, Ehresman said. Memorial Pool, the smallest of the three, has not been converted.

In 2011, the city lost $221,376 on the three pools.

“They all lose money,” Ehresman said.

Deciding what to do

In Columbia City, officials are awaiting an engineering study of the city’s 55-year-old Burnworth Community Pool. The report will come before the City Council for discussion, Columbia City Mayor Ryan Daniel said.

“The study will give options on renovating Burnworth pool, building a new pool or closing Burnworth altogether,” Daniel said.

The city pool lost about $40,000 last year.

“It’s a service to the community,” City Parks Director Mark Green said. “The question is how much is too much to lose? Do we continue to lose $35,000 to $40,000 every year?”

Although the Wells Community Swimming Pool in Bluffton is “crazy busy,” said Pam Vanderkolk, director of city parks, it “still loses a whole lot more than I would like to see it lose.”

Last year, the city had expenses of $93,420 for the pool while generating an income of $44,478. The figures did not include several hundred more dollars spent on liability insurance, concessions and sanitation supplies, Vanderkolk said, because those purchases are done in bulk for the entire parks system.

It’s not just the pool itself that is so important to the community, but the jobs the pool offers to teenagers, Vanderkolk said.

“Jobs are so hard to find, and we have such a great staff,” she said. “I would hate to have to talk about downsizing or closing, but I also have to look at the budget.”

Never made money

Wabash Park Director Todd Titus has worked for the city for 34 years and said the pool has never made money in that time. Last year, the pool’s operating costs were $101,400 while revenue generated was about $30,500, Titus said.

The Mark C. Honeywell Pool was donated by a local businessman and the pool’s namesake in 1961.

“The Honeywell name is very well-known in this town,” Titus said, “and the pool is a part of summer life in Wabash.”

It’s much the same story farther south, where Decatur Parks Director Steve Krull said the city pool “always loses money.”

Amazingly, Decatur City Pool was built in 1902 when city workers dug a hole and filled it with water from the St. Marys River.

“In the 1920s they added the concrete base, and it was renovated in 1979, but it’s the same pool,” Krull said.

The city continues to keep costs low since the area has a high percentage of low-income families, he said.

Partnering

Decatur may be the only city in Indiana to join forces with a school to provide pool services, Krull said.

The city’s certified pool staff operates and maintains the indoor swimming pool at Bellmont High School year-round.

“We operate it and maintain it and North Adams School system funds it,” Krull said.

The agreement allows the city to provide year-round swimming lessons and senior aquatic classes, Krull said.

The city of Berne has also partnered on the operation of its community pool.

The city budgets $33,500 annually to pay all utility costs at the pool as well as small repairs, Clerk-Treasurer Gwen Moeller said. All other daily operational costs fall to Berne Recreational Facilities, a separate entity. But if there was a major repair, such as a leak, the city would have to appropriate more money, Moeller said.

Rick Hower, superintendent of Auburn Parks, said he and other city officials, including Auburn Mayor Norm Yoder, have had many conversations about the financial burden of a community pool.

But that’s as far as it goes, Hower said.

“It always comes back to continuing to provide a certain quality of life for residents,” Hower said. “That’s the bottom line.”

vsade@jg.net

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