Should Belleville build a new pool?

News-DemocratSeptember 28, 2013 

— As residents in Belleville and surrounding areas lament a second summer without a municipal pool, city leaders continue to say they can only provide the amenity through a public-private venture.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert said the city is serious about getting a new pool, but the city needs help with construction, maintenance and management costs.

Eckert said officials will continue to meet with potential partners -- schools, hospitals, recreation centers, other cities -- in hopes of establishing a plan in 2014.

"We have had a number of serious, good conversations, but there's nothing happening at this exact moment," Eckert said. "Nobody is at a point yet where they're ready to commit the dollars. It's going to take a little bit of time for us to get there."

Aside from the cost of building and operating a pool, Eckert said city leaders must weigh details such as where to place the pool and what new features will better serve residents.

City leaders voted to close the Belleville Swimming Pool after a 36 years before the 2012 pool season.

The city's layout is different now from when the existing pool was built on Hecker Street because of land annexation and shifted population concentrations.

Jim Schneider, the city's director of human resources, training and community development, said city leaders know a city the size of Belleville should have a pool.

"Because we don't have a pool, that leaves whole groups -- camps, children, seniors -- who no longer have a place to go," Schneider said. "It's something that we want to attend to again and ultimately what we design must attend to all those needs."

The city recently started a year-long process to develop a 20-year comprehensive plan and residents have expressed in that forum their desire for a swimming pool.

"In general, active living has been part of the conversation -- everything from more bike trails to complete streets to a large scale recreation complex -- and these things will definitely be woven into the plan in some way," said Emily Fultz, the city's director of Economic Development and Planning.

What do residents have to say?

More than 20 residents responded to a News-Democrat query for opinions on the pool situation and all but one was in favor of the city having a new pool.

Generations of residents said they have fond memories of learning how to swim at the Belleville pool. And, many believe children in the area need more recreational options in the summer to keep them healthy and out of trouble.

Not everyone has access to a private pool and a public pool would be attractive to families thinking of moving to Belleville.

Several said they would donate to a public pool fund or support a minimal tax solely for a swimming pool.

* Judith Rosen, 71, of unincorporated Belleville, said swimming has always been important in her family. Her son, now 40, was on the swim team, taught swimming and was a lifeguard at Scott Air Force Base.

Like paying taxes for schools, Rosen said she's willing to pay a tax for the pool.

"You can use the pool for family outings," Rosen said. "Kids need a place to learn how to swim. It's a healthy sport, it's fun and above all, it can prevent drowning."

* Jonathan Denzmore, 30, of Belleville, said many families cannot afford a membership to the YMCA and some can't easily travel to O'Fallon or Millstadt to use those public pools.

"I have kids myself, so I actually just set up a pool in my backyard because the city pool closed," Denzmore said. "Now all the neighbor kids are here, from sun up until sun down."

* Laura L. Pickerel, 65, of Swansea, said she was disappointed when the pool closed and would use it now for aqua-aerobics.

"I want to give my 2-year-old grandson the joy of water in a big, public pool," Pickerel said. "We have a terrific Splash Pad in Swansea, but there's nothing quite like a clean, huge pool."

Pickerel said she brought her daughters to the Belleville pool for many years.

"It provided them with wonderful exercise, fresh air and sunshine, the love of water, and making new summer time friends."

* Cindy Collins, of Belleville, said she visited the Belleville pool with her granddaughter to carry on a tradition.

"We spent nearly every day there that summer, as did my best friend and her three grandchildren," Collins wrote. "It was always crowded but we never had any problems and everyone seemed respectful of everyone else. It was quality time -- between friends and grandmas and grandchildren."

* Michael Treece Jr., of Belleville, said he took students to the pool twice a week when he was co-director of the Abraham Lincoln Neighborhood Summer Camp.

"Yes, Belleville needs a pool," Treece said. "Other communities have them and people from Belleville use them. Now there is no pool for field trips or summer camp outings. A pool is an amenity that citizens would like to pay for and maintain with pride."

What do aldermen think?

The majority of Belleville aldermen do not know how to pay for a new pool but agree the city should have some kind of aquatic activity for the public, especially for residents who do not have memberships to a private pool.

Some would like to have an indoor pool that is open year-round and an outdoor pool as part of a greater recreation center. Others say there should be smaller pools built across the city to allow residents easier access.

Ward 3 Alderman Gabby Rujawitz suggested building a new pool at Bicentennial Park, a 43-acre property off the new 17th Street stretch, because of its proximity to Illinois 15, Lindenwood University and Belleville West High School.

But Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult and Alderwoman-at-Large Lillian Schneider questioned whether the site has firm ground to support a pool. Both alderwomen believe the city never should have developed the park, should stop spending tax dollars there and instead use the money to build a public pool.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Kinsella said that because the existing pool was in his ward, residents in his ward are particularly concerned that children in Belleville have a place to swim.

"They knew just how many kids used that pool," Kinsella said. "Swimming is a life skill and that's where a lot of people learned to swim."

In addition to building anew, Kinsella said the city needs to discuss and budget for taking care of the property where the old pool remains.

"It probably needs to be ripped out and hauled away so the area could be turned back into a park," Kinsella said. "I don't think we've had problems with kids getting in it, but I know if I was 13 and had a skateboard, I'd sure think about it."

What do other cities have?

Eckert tasked Schneider with researching examples of how public and private partnerships have worked in other cities.

"Cities in this day and age rarely build pools on their own anymore: They tend to partner," Schneider said.

The business model Belleville ends up using will largely be influenced by who the partners are, Schneider said.

* In Clayton, Mo., the city has a partnership with the school district, allowing students to use the pool part of the time and the public at other times, Schneider said.

Last year, representatives from both the YMCA of Southwest Illinois and Lindenwood University-Belleville said they were interested in talking to the city about such a partnership.

The YMCA has six pools in the metro-east, two of which are indoors in Belleville. Lindenwood's Belleville campus does not have a swimming pool or swim team.

* The Korte Recreation Center, which opened in 2001, has an indoor swimming pool, water slide, gym and basketball courts.

The Highland Area Community Foundation and the city built the $6 million center with land and $1.25 million donated by Ralph Korte.

The city eventually purchased the building and is now paying the bonds off with sales tax revenue, Highland Parks and Recreation Director Mark Rosen said.

Operation and maintenance of the center is paid for with user fees and interest from an endowment kept by the foundation. The recreation center has a $1.2 million budget, with 3,200 members and up to 120,000 visitors yearly.

Aside from the center, the city has an outdoor pool that has a $178,000 budget partially paid for through the cable TV franchise tax, Rosen said. The pool also is supported by admission fees, lesson fees, concessions and facility rentals.

The city decided in recent years to close the pool two weeks before Labor Day as a cost-saving measure, Rosen said.

"It costs $500 per day just to have the pool filled, so we save just by closing by the first day of school," Rosen said. "We were struggling to keep it staffed since most of the lifeguards and our visitors go back to school by then."

* The Splash City Family Waterpark in Collinsville is supported by the Collinsville Area Recreation District, a municipal tax district created to acquire, maintain and operate the city's parks.

The water park opened for its 16th season this year and drew 57,549 visitors last year.

It has operated in the black for the past two years, with revenue of $621,303 and expenses of $619,080 last season. In April, voters approved cutting the amount of taxes collected by the district and reducing its budget by more than $250,000 in 2014.

* O'Fallon residents have the option of a public pool, Splash Pad at the Family Sports Park or an indoor pool at the YMCA.

O'Fallon City Administrator Walter Denton said the Splash Pad opened in the past couple of years and is turning out to be a very popular attraction.

O'Fallon paid for the additions to the sports park with grants and bonds, paid out of telecommunications and hotel-motel tax proceeds.

* The Heights, located in Richmond Heights, Mo., is a multipurpose fitness center that partners with the cities of Brentwood and Maplewood.

What obstacles did the pool present?

If city officials chose to open the pool in 2012, the city would have had to spend at least $60,000 in improvements to comply with state regulations.

The Illinois Department of Public Health in October 2011 ordered Belleville, and other municipal pools statewide, to close for not complying with mandated updates to drains.

To reopen, the city also would have to make electrical improvements, train pool staff and paint over the whale logo in the children's pool.

And, it would have cost an additional $500,000 to comply with new regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The pool was built in 1976 and operated on the original tank and pipe system, and the cost of maintenance increased yearly.

Eckert estimated it cost the city more than $100,000 annually to operate the pool in its last seven years. The pool lost $50,000 in 2011 and $10,000 in 2010.

The pool closed for part of summer 2010 after at least 43 people were sickened by a parasite called cryptosporidium, or "crypto," in connection with the pool. The state never found crypto in the pool.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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