Will it be sink or swim for a new outdoor pool?
WORTHINGTON -- A group organized in hopes of building a new outdoor pool for the city of Worthington will present a petition to the city council Monday night.
"Monday night, we are going to bring the petition and the results of our work to the council," said Sally Darling, who is a part of the pool committee. "Our goal is to let them know that there are people who really believe this is worth pursuing in Worthington."
The committee first met last July to find out the interest of the group.
"In the fall and during the last couple of months, we've had a petition online and a paper copy of the petition," Darling said. "We've been at several different city events. We've been getting signatures, but also more importantly, visiting with people and hearing their perspective -- both for and against the idea.
"What we found was overwhelmingly, there was strong support of people about having a larger facility in the summertime outdoors for kids."
On Monday, the committee for a new pool will present a petition with more than 400 signatures.
"We are always appreciative of folks that want to take an active and participatory role in working with the city and being involved and taking an interest in those things," Worthington City Administrator Craig Clark said. "It seems like public participation at times is difficult, having people interested is certainly a welcome component. We appreciate hearing their voice. The city is about providing services that the residents request through their elected officials. An outdoor pool isn't a strange request as far as that's concerned."
Mike Smith, who has helped organize the group, hopes to see a good turnout of supporters on Monday.
"We'd like to work with the city in whatever way we can to move this forward and to see where it goes from there," Smith said.
"We're very much aware there are different projects and things in the community that are fighting for the same dollars," Smith added. "From our point of view, that doesn't mean we just sit back and not ask for something that seems to be a want of people in the area."
The old pool
The former outdoor pool, which was closed following the summer of 2009, was beyond repair, according to Clark.
"I don't think it was an understatement to say it was held together with bubble gum and bailing twine," he said. "This thing was really on its last leg."
The boiler was broken and the pool was leaking water, meaning not only was water being added, but it wasn't warm.
The council decided to put $4.5 million from the hospital sale funds into the City of Worthington Aquatic Center, located in conjunction with the Worthington Area YMCA on Collegeway. The city built both an inside and outside component.
"It's important to recognize that council has dedicated $4.5 million to a swimming amenity for our community," Clark said. "Council has been aware and accommodating of the broader amenity challenges or interests of the community.
"They made a practical decision. Is it better to have a facility that is going to be utilized around 340 days a year versus 70? No doubt, on a 95-degree summer day, would it be nice to have an outdoor pool? Absolutely, there isn't anybody that wouldn't like that. We still have an outdoor pool component. Is it as big as everybody would desire? No. But it's still there.
Size is the issue
The old pool had an estimated size of 7,000 square feet. The total area of both pools at the current aquatic center is 7,233 square feet -- the indoor pool is 5,104, the outdoor pool is 2,129.
"The YMCA has a small outdoor piece and we know the city helped provide that," Darling said. "It's great, it's just very small. It does not have adequate space, particularly for elementary, middle and high school kids who need more room."
Smith said there should be more space both in the pool and around it.
"It's just not big enough. There is an outdoor pool at the YMCA and it's just not big enough to accommodate what we had before," he said. "You don't go to the YCMA pool during the summer and see a bunch of teenage kids hanging out there. There's just no room -- there's no green space or deck area for lawn chairs and for kids to lay by the pool.
"What we heard from a lot of people was, when it was done and people got a first-time look at it, that wasn't really the impression of what was being told to the public. It was a shock about, 'That's it? That's all there is?'"
Cost of a new pool
While there haven't been any plans formulated by the group, a new pool would require an investment.
The outdoor component of the current facility was $645,000, according to Clark. Tom Schaffer, CEO of USAquatics, estimated a basic 7,000-square-foot pool would cost about $3 million.
"When people do new facilities, they want to know what the current trends are, what is going to be unique about the facility that is going to draw people in," Schaffer said. "What's going to help drive revenues so that we don't have to subsidize the operation? Those are all the factors that have to be added into it.
"Will we identify that a lazy river might work for them or a special ride slide or more zero-depth area? Those are all the findings in the process we go through to identify that."
Schaffer and USAquatics worked with the city and the YMCA to design the current pool. The company has also worked with Slayton, Fairmont and other southwest Minnesota towns.
"A lot of the communities that we work in, what we try to do is to deliver a facility that will at least break even operationally," Schaffer said. "That's the goal, so cities don't have to subsidize the operational costs. The one thing the taxpayers, in my opinion, struggle with the most, it's not just the capital outlay in the beginning, it's how much of my tax dollars are going to subsidize this thing? If we can bring close to zeroing out or a little bit in the black, that's the big difference with these communities. We've done it successfully.
"Seasonal outdoor pools in Minnesota are very successful. We have more outdoor pools in the state of Minnesota than we have lakes. I think that's a good testimony to the success of it."
When the city had the outdoor pool, Clark estimated it lost about $100,000 per year.
Currently, the operational costs are covered by the YMCA, with the city only responsible for capital improvements to the facility.
According to YMCA Executive Director Andy Johnson, there could be potential to add on to the current pool.
"We have leased the current footprint the current Y and city aquatic center is on now," he said. "In order for us to expand, what would have to happen is certainly you'd want to have your pool designers engaged with our existing facility to see what has to be done to upgrade and expand to what we have now. Simply said, I'm sure you could do it because we're talking about opening gates and moving fences and moving out in a certain direction."
He said parking could be an issue, but Johnson doesn't feel it would prevent progress from happening.
"Having said that, could it be expanded? Certainly the committee would need to decide this is a viable possibility, and then we need to get approval from the state of Minnesota and MnSCU to allow that to happen," Johnson said. "When we originally got into this building project and were negotiating going through the leasing of this property, there was always the thought process that someday the Y/city may want to expand."
However, Smith said the community feedback said the old pool site is preferable.
"(Expanding the YMCA is) not what we want and it's not what we heard from the community for different reasons," Smith said. "There are some people who aren't comfortable going the Y because they are not members. There are some people who come from out of town who don't want to go the YMCA. It's a membership thing and we heard a lot of where, 'I don't want to go there for the pool because I'm not a member and I don't feel right going there and using it.'"
Smith also said the old site was also more centralized.
"It's very visible at the old place and with the location to the lake, too," he said. "It was nice to be able to drive around the lake and see the people at the pool. It was an atmosphere that a lot of people liked. There is a parking lot there already; the main water lines are there to some point. The green space and everything is there."
Quality of life issue
For the pool committee, the issue is improving the quality of life in Worthington.
"Our big thing, even more about the cost and revenue because people say pools don't make any money; they are only open for a short period of time," Darling said. "We keep looking at it as a quality of life issue. The city has done a lot of good things to improve the quality of life through our parks and bike trails and things like that. That's what we see this is. It's a real need for the quality of life for the kids in this community. That's what keeping us going and going up and trying to see this through."
It's also an opportunity to improve the health of the town's youths.
"There has been a lot of talk about how our kids are inactive and they don't have anything to do and we have to get them to stop watching TV," Smith said. "There's no place to go anymore. We want that back."