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Jackson rec board pushes for indoor pool

fr indoorpoolIt’s been more than two years since Jackson County finished a recreation master plan declaring an indoor pool a top priority, and leaders of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department and Recreation and Parks Advisory Board are itching to see the idea move closer to reality — this fall they voted to make getting a feasibility study done their number one goal.

“Everybody we come in contact with — 70, 75 percent of them — say we need an indoor pool,” said David McCoy, chairman of the advisory board.  

That chorus was reflected in the survey that went with the 2013 master plan, which polled 763 people, 534 of whom said that they’d be willing to support funding for a centrally located indoor swimming pool. 

“There are just so many positives that outweigh the negatives,” McCoy said. “Of course the cost to keep it up is a big thing — the initial building cost — but done in the right way, in a proper way, I really feel like it will be something everybody in the county can use.”

 

Bringing it to commissioners 

Rusty Ellis, the county’s recreation director, relayed that message to Jackson County Commissioners at their November work session, telling them that Jackson’s lack of an indoor pool is causing the county to lose money when residents go out of county to use a pool and that it’s holding back membership at the recreation centers. 

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“We get hit up every day at the rec center: ‘When is the indoor pool going to come?’” Ellis said. 

It would probably cost somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 to get a feasibility study done, which would look at the cost involved to build and maintain a pool and help commissioners weigh the pros and cons of the decision, Ellis said. He asked that commissioners get a study done sooner rather than later. A pool would allow local swim teams to have their meets locally, let the county partner with Harris Regional Hospital to provide water therapy and could even bring in USA Swimming meets. 

Some commissioners seemed to see Ellis’s point of view. 

“With some mobility issues, I for one know the value of water and nonimpact exercises,” said Commissioner Mark Jones. 

“We’re losing money to them (Jackson County residents) going outside the county,” added Chairman Brian McMahan. 

But building a pool is far from being a cheap endeavor. Pools can cost millions of dollars to build and hundreds of thousands per year to maintain. They’re rarely, if ever, moneymakers. They’re nearly always money losers. 

And the indoor pool question is far from being the only capital question commissioners have to consider. They’re looking at a $1.4 million renovation of the county’s Skyland Services Center, contemplating doing either a renovation of the Health Department building or constructing a new building, and they’re also facing a space shortage in the Justice Center. Then there’s expansion of the Green Energy Park and clamor to build a new animal shelter. All that is playing out against the backdrop of a county revaluation that’s expected to deliver a much-reduced tax base for the coming fiscal year. 

So while commissioners are aware of the arguments in favor of building a pool, some board members say it’s not something that’s going to happen any time soon. 

“Right now it’s not a priority,” McMahan said, adding that commissioners won’t likely discuss the issue again until their January planning retreat, which is when the topic of a feasibility study could next come up. 

Commissioner Vicki Greene’s stance is even less enthusiastic than that. 

“We need to provide community recreation opportunities for Savannah and Qualla before we even think about an indoor swimming pool,” she said. 

The county recently purchased a 2.3-acre property in Savannah that it intends to use for a park, but no headway has been made on providing recreation in the Qualla area. Greene wants to see both projects to the finish line before entertaining the thought of building a pool, and she carries some overall skepticism about the county’s ability to afford such a resource, as well as its capacity for use. 

“You’re talking about putting a couple hundred thousand dollars a year into additional operating costs,” Greene said. “Will it be used? I’m sure it will be used. But it is something the majority of citizens in Jackson County support? I don’t think so.”

To that last point, pool supporters would no doubt mention the results of the 2013 survey, in which 70 percent of respondents said they’d support funding an indoor pool, 73 percent said the county needed more indoor pools and water parks, and 73 percent said it was important to construct an indoor pool. In all three questions, the pool garnered the highest number of positive responses of any of the options. But the 763 people who participated in the survey are but a subset of the county’s more than 40,000 residents. 

“The ones who would use it are very vocal,” Greene said.

 

Looking to Waynesville 

In the case of Waynesville’s indoor pool, finding users hasn’t been a problem, according to the pool’s aquatics director Luke Kinsland.

“We have a ton of groups come here from all around the region,” Kinsland said. Asheville, Hendersonville, Jackson County — you name it — individuals and groups in search of water find their way to Waynesville. 

Waynesville built its pool in 2000 at the same time as its recreation center, which is adjacent — the combined price for the facilities was $5.5 million at that time. Each year, maintenance and staffing costs total somewhere between $150,000 to $200,000, Kinsland said, though that number can jump higher if some major equipment issue crops up. 

It’s next to impossible to pay those costs with pool revenue, which typically sits between $30,000 and $40,000 annually, Kinsland said. During the 2014-15 fiscal year, the pool pulled in $41,320 from programs such as swimming lessons, pool parties and swim meets. That doesn’t count rec center memberships, which include access to many amenities beyond the pool. 

It’s clear from the number of pool parties and swim teams and lap swimmers and families that come through the doors that the pool’s an important asset to the community, and that importance goes beyond the simple joy of splashing around in calm water, Kinsland said. 

“Teaching people how to swim is one of the main things because during the summer months, a lot of people are going out visiting bodies of water and a lot of them don’t even know how to swim, so to me you’re investing in community safety,” he said.  

In that sense, having a pool pays off, Kinsland said. But in real dollars, it never will. That’s just the nature of public pools. 

“The rule of thumb is in dealing with an indoor or outdoor pool, you’ll lose money,” said Rhett Langston, Waynesville’s Parks and Recreation director. “You’re not going to make money. It’s not going to be a moneymaking or profitable business.”

For Waynesville, however, the investment calculation is a bit different than for Jackson County. Waynesville owns its own electric utility, and the proceeds are what made the rec center’s construction possible. Jackson County’s main means of revenue generation is property taxes, and with a revaluation expected to downsize the value of the tax base going into effect for the upcoming fiscal year, the county is facing tightened purse strings.

McCoy said he recognizes that reality, but he still feels passionately about the project and hopes to see it at least inch off the starting block. 

“I think a good, thorough feasibility study needs to be done,” he said. “Just get into it and just see the pros and the cons and just see what the outcome will be.”

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