Is that … ? Could it be … light at the end of what has been a long and gloomy economic tunnel?

Since the recession hit in 2008, hundreds of community pools have been shuttered, with operations cut back significantly at perhaps thousands more. As summer 2012 approaches, many operations are still struggling and pools are still being closed.

But that’s not the case everywhere. In some locales, pools previously closed due to budget cuts are set to go back online this summer, and some cautiously optimistic experts are ready to declare that the worst is over.

“We’re not anticipating any further cutbacks … but the floodgates aren’t open,” said Ken Ballard, president of Ballard*King & Associates in Highland Ranch, Colo. “It’s going to be a slow, gradual rebound.”

According to the National League of Cities, municipal budgets often lag behind the general economy at least 18 to 24 months, for a variety of reasons.

“Generally, cities are still feeling the recession, and there is a considerable way to go before recovery is felt,” said Amanda Straub, media relations assistant at the National League of Cities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit association of cities and state municipal leagues. A 2011 NLC survey of city fiscal conditions found that 42 percent of respondents were making cuts in areas other than public safety and human/social services. That includes recreation.

It means pools still will be closing this summer. Mick Nelson, facilities development director at USA Swimming, has documented more than 400 pool closings since 2009, and he’s still seeing two or three announcements of pools closing each week.

Nelson and other experts add that more pools — especially those in hotel or motel settings — likely will close if operators cannot find the resources to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

“[Operators] have put some of them on hold that were planning to close since the 60-day hiatus [for compliance] was announced,” Nelson said. “But there are hundreds poised to close if the law stays the way it is written.”

Residents in at least two cities — Columbus, Ohio and Phoenix — will have more access to pools this summer as officials reopen pools that had been previously closed due to budget cuts.

In Columbus, the Lincoln Pool, which was closed last year, will be open this summer, according to reports. In Phoenix, all 29 of the city’s operable pools will be open for business. Since 2009, eight of the pools have been closed on a rotating basis.

“The community has been very outspoken that they would like to have their pools open,” noted Becky Hulett, aquatics supervisor for the city of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.

Overall, it appears that recovery is happening more quickly in regions and market sectors that felt less of an impact. That includes Texas and the Northeast, as well as parts of the education segment. Additionally, private education appears to be spending more money on recreation amenities such as pools, said Kevin Post, project manager at Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis. That’s according to a recent economic report he reviewed.

Ballard said inquiries, including requests for proposals, have increased in the past six months, particularly in the area of renovations that will enable operators to maintain their facilities and increase profitability.

It's the same at Counsilman-Hunsaker, which is receiving more RFPs than it has in several years, Post said. To avoid more drastic cuts, he hopes operators look into opportunities to generate revenue, such as partnerships.

Aquatics operators for the city of La Mirada, Calif., cover approximately 97 percent of their operating expenses, Post noted. For that reason, community leaders are not looking at making big cuts to pools, while neighboring community pools that are not as fiscally sustainable will have a tougher time.

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