The Canton swimming pool is on its last leg and without a major investment of $750,000 to $1 million, the town will be forced to close it within a few years.
Canton’s pool has been held together with everything short of duct tape and baling wire. Every year, the town’s street workers climb down into the dry pool bed with spatulas and buckets of concrete to patch the burgeoning number of cracks, then apply gallons of fresh paint to get the pool through another summer.
“It is in very bad shape,” said Alderman Eric Dills. “We have been patching the pool to get by year after year after year, but water is a destructive force. It is leaking so bad now you just about have to build a new pool.”
It will eventually get so bad patching can’t fix it. And that point is not too far off. The town may have as few as three years left in the pool — five at the most.
Unfortunately, busting up the concrete pool and rebuilding it is the only solution.
“It would be a tremendously expensive project to undertake,” Town Manager Al Matthews. “They have two options — they borrow the money and do it or shut it down.”
Canton’s pool is not only one of the largest in size but draws the biggest crowd of any other pool in Haywood, Jackson, Macon or Swain counties.
Its capacity is 500, and it easily draws more than 300 on busy summer days, fully double what the next biggest pools in the region draw.
“It is one of the most popular things we do have,” Matthews said.
The town board will have a tough choice to make on whether to invest the money to remake the pool.
“The bottom line is no matter what we do, the concrete is still of an age that it will deteriorate. That is the problem: the age of the concrete,” Matthews said.
The town hired a consultant to do an assessment of the pool last year. The good news is that the pool is structurally sound. In fact, that was the main impetus to bring in a structural engineer for an outside report.
“We wanted to know is this pool safe,” Matthews said.
Safe it is, but its useful life is limited. It will take $750,000 to redo the pool, and another $250,000 to redo the bathrooms, changing rooms and concession stand, according to estimates in the report.
Dills doesn’t think the town has the kind of money it will take to bust up and rebuild the pool.
“Really we would have to have some outside funding,” Dills said, suggesting the town hunt for a grant.
The town of Sylva and Swain County have gotten state grants from the N.C. Parks and Recreation Trust Fund to cover a portion of pool overhauls there. But that was a few years ago, and Matthews is highly doubtful the town could land grant money like that today. Dills admits it may be a long shot.
“The state has tightened up on money. These grants are tougher to get than they were a few years ago,” Dills said.
Pools can be a money pit
Pools are an expensive prospect, not only to repair and maintain but simply to operate.
“For every county or town, it is a service. It is not a money making venture at all,” said Seth Adams, Macon County’s recreation director.
Canton brings in about $40,000, but spends $75,000 on lifeguards, staff and other overhead.
Canton is one of the few pools with a concession stands, but it merely adds to the pool’s financial burden. It’s a money-losing proposition: it doesn’t bring in enough to cover the cost of food and counter workers. Last year the concession stand lost over $8,000 on top of the pool’s operational loss.
The town of Highlands posted the worst pool losses in the four-county area last year. It has the smallest attendance and the lowest admission — only 35 people a day on average paying just $2 to get in. The pool brought in a measly $4,500 last year compared to $67,000 in operations.
Highlands is one of the only public pools that is heated, adding to overhead by about $5,000 annually for propane.
In Swain County, pool costs come to $61,000 a year, including a little set aside in a capital improvement fund. The pool brings in only $16,000, but an annual contribution from the town of Bryson City for $21,000 tempers the operating loss somewhat.
Waynesville bulldozed its outdoor pool 10 years ago after building an indoor one. The town couldn’t afford to subsidize two pools, according to Town Manager Lee Galloway.
“The operating costs were always about twice what it brought in,” Galloway said.
Galloway admits he wasn’t exactly sad to see the outdoor pool go.
“It was leaking so much water and the maintenance costs on it were extraordinary,” Galloway said.
Besides, there were two other outdoor pools in the county.
“My argument at the time was you can go to Lake Junaluska, which is four miles away, or Canton, which is eight miles away,” Galloway said.
Who should pay?
Therein lies part of the rub. Canton residents are subsidizing the outdoor pool, but scads of the 275 people who go to the pool on an average summer day don’t live in town, and thus don’t pay town taxes toward the pool’s upkeep or operations. Those folks are getting a steal on the low $3 admission.
Likewise, Waynesville’s indoor pool serves the whole county, yet town taxpayers pick up the tab.
The county used to kick in an annual contribution to both towns for recreation, recognizing that the two towns were bankrolling recreation like swimming pools used by everyone in the county. But the county yanked that funding as part of the sweeping recession-inspired budget cuts.
Both towns have contemplated charging pool users more who don’t live in town, and reserving the cheaper rates for in-town residents who also pony up town taxes to subsidize the facilities.
But pool workers would then have to be in the business of checking everyone’s ID to determine residency.
“That is a cumbersome thing to implement,” Matthews said.
Such a system is used at Lake Junaluska, where the 770 property owners at the lake get a 50 percent discount compared to the general public. The pool is operated by Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a private non-profit, and the public is welcome to use it.
“We see having members of the greater community come to Lake Junaluska and participate in what we have and be exposed to the things that are happening here is in a way a form of evangelism,” said Ken Howle, the director of advancement at Lake Junaluska. “We can show our Christian hospitality not only in our programs but the recreational activities we do as well.”
Unlike towns and counties, Lake Junaluska lacks taxes to subsidize operations, so the Lake attempts to break even or come close to breaking even on its pool, and as a result has to charge more than city and county pools — $6 compared to $3 for adults.
In Sylva, the county shares the cost of operating the pool even though the pool technically belongs to the town. In fact, the county pays for the entire pool operations up front, and acts as the employer for the pool’s manager and staff. At the end of the season, the town cuts the county a check for its share — half of whatever that year’s cost was minus the revenue.
In Canton, whether the county chips in, a grant is miraculously found, or aldermen bite the bullet themselves, Dills hopes the town can arrive at a solution.
“The pool is a huge priority,” Dills said. “It is a centerpiece. It is a jewel of the recreation for the town of Canton.”
WNC’s outdoor pools
Admission: $6/general public, free for kids 4 and under. Summer grounds pass is $150 for a family of four and includes other Lake J recreation amenities like a round of golf, putt-putt, tickets to Junaluska Singers concerts and more.
Features: Graduated entry ramp good for toddlers and children, as well as handicapped accessible.
Daily average: 125 with capacity capped at 270.
Admission: $3; 10-visit pass for $25.
Features: Separate baby pool enclosed with a fence to prevent wandering into big pool.
Daily average: 275. Capacity capped at 500.
Admission: $3, free for kids 3 and under. Season pass is $150/family or $80/individual. Family night on Monday and Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. for $5/family.
Features: Separate kiddy-pool with water play features. Sun Shade over part of pool.
Daily average: 225. Capacity capped at ?
Admission: $3/adults, $2.50/kids ages six and up, free for 5 and under. Season pass is $275/family or $150/individual.
Features: Separate kids pool that is three-feet deep, separate splah play area, water slide, Olympic sized pool.
Daily average: 75 to 100 on a busy day. Capacity capped at 300.
Admission: $2/adults, $1/kids under five. Season pass is $100/family or $50/individual.
Daily average: 150 to 200. Capacity capped at 250.
Admission: $2/adults, $1/children. Season pass is $90/family and $40/individual.
Features: Separate kiddy pool.
Daily average: 30 to 40. Capacity capped at 80.