When members of the Northwest Branch Swim Club gathered for a meeting July 15, the situation was dire. Opened in 1962, the private facility was showing its age. The deck was pulling away from the coping so dramatically, expensive marine caulk had to be used to fill the now-2-inch gap. Elsewhere, concrete had sunken so badly it created a serious tripping hazard. County inspectors threatened to close the facility for the deck problems alone.
But the troubles didn’t stop there.
At the Northwest Branch Pool in Silver Spring, Md., the once-shiny aqua waterline tiles now are cracked and missing, letting water seep into the shell and causing untold damage. An even worse crack runs the length of the baby pool.
“We have enough things wrong that we basically have to do a full renovation,” says Jeff O’Connor, board president. It should have happened five years ago, he adds.
The Northwest Branch Swim Club was in such bad shape, inspectors almost didn’t allow the Silver Spring, Md., pool to open in 2012. Board members launched a campaign to generate support for funding a renovation. Club members approved the decision in July.
He’s not the only one in that position. Nearly 50 percent of operators say their facilities are 20 years old or more, according to a 2011 Aquatics International online survey of approximately 450 readers. The majority of respondents — nearly 60 percent — also report either having no plans to renovate or being unable to, due to budget constraints.
Many, like O’Connor, have been forced to practically beg for assistance. Other operators have turned to the equivalent of community bake sales for funding.
The recent spate of government regulation and the fallout from the various recalls and reinterpretations have exacerbated an already costly problem.
Since 2008, aquatics has been hit with the Virginia Graeme Baker drain cover requirement and the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Both proved expensive, further draining resources that might have been spent on needed renovations. A 2012 Aquatics International online survey of approximately 290 readers shows that in the past five years alone, 60 percent of respondents spent at least $10,000 complying with government regulations. More than 10 percent spent upwards of $100,000.
Operators nationwide find themselves between a proverbial rock and a hard place. Many are just trying to get by on the cheap using the Band-Aid approach or putting off needed repairs and renovations all together.
But when operators pinch pennies on repairs, or do them piecemeal, patron safety could be shortchanged. When people start getting hurt, it’s not long until the pool is shut down. What’s more, many features of older pools can slowly deteriorate without even the savviest operator knowing, everything from circulation and bonding systems to tiny cracks appearing. A small problem can suddenly grow huge.
But amidst this bleak backdrop, there is hope. As the economy begins to turn around, long put-off projects are beginning to see the light of day. Even in communities where budgets are still tight, it’s possible to generate support and funding for potentially costly repair and renovation projects.
Rather than give up, experts say now is the time for operators to get proactive. Ultimately, that means presenting a bold, clearly defined vision of what needs to be done, and how essential improvements can foster the kind of financial sustainability that will ensure a brighter, safer future.
Less money, more problems
So just how did aquatics get here?
Many of today’s community aquatics facilities can trace their roots back more than 80 years ago, according to Bruce Wigo, president/CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. During the Great Depression, approximately 2,000 pools and wading pools were built as public works projects, and millions more were built during the 1950s and ’60s. However, these mid-century pools, Wigo says, “were devoid of the social amenities that had made pools so popular, and were designed to the specifications of competitive swimming.”
The facilities that survived have mostly been money-losers since the mid-20th century, Wigo adds, when patrons abandoned them as home swimming pools became affordable thanks to cheaper building materials. Also, in many areas, especially the South, desegregation led to some abandoning public pools. Because of prejudice and fears of racial tension, many stopped utilizing the facilities and never came back. The end result is less money for current refurbishment, Wigo notes. More recently, the Great Recession has put many municipal governments in dire straits. More than 40 cities have declared bankruptcy since 1981, and nearly one-quarter of those have come in the past four years, according to a July 2012 blog by writer and radio broadcaster Stephen Lendman.
And when choices have to be made, officials are apt to cut so-called nonessential expenses before services such as police or firefighters, says Amanda Straub, media relations assistant at the National League of Cities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit association of cities and state municipal leagues.
Aquatics was then hit with a double whammy in the form of federal government regulations. In 2008, the VGB Act became law, forcing facilities to pay tens of thousands to comply. Next was the ADA, which dictated that facilities had to purchase $3,000 to $8,000 pool lifts or make other changes to comply. The combination of shrinking budgets and increasing regulations have forced hundreds of pools to close since 2009, according to industry experts and Aquatics International’s own observance.
Many more are on life support.
For example, a 2010 study indicated that replacing old pools in the city of Williamsport, Pa., was unaffordable without a grant or other outside funding. A pump broke at the 35-year-old pool in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., in July. It cost about $2,000 to replace, and other wear and tear in the mechanical systems is visible, according to local reports. But the city has no plans to spend several million dollars on a new facility. Meanwhile, officials in Rosendale, N.Y., are seeing if they have enough money to replace a 60-year-old pool.
The financial situation in a city such as Sacramento, the capital of California, epitomizes the current picture. With nearly one-half million people, Sacramento had 13 pools only a decade ago, but by summer 2012, just three were in operation. Meanwhile, the only public pool in Traverse City, Mich., was in the red by $244,000 in 2010.
“Once you start losing money, the expense for deferred maintenance is usually the first thing cut,” Wigo says. “So then you have five or 10 years of putting off repairs or making improvements until it gets so monstrous and you have to spend so much. Then they’re just not worth operating anymore.”
Something like that is what led to the situation at Northwest Branch Pool in Silver Spring, Md. There’s a waiting list now, but for several years membership was down and a number of users weren’t paying the required dues, O’Connor says.
It was a similar story at the 47-year-old Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Aquatic Center, which includes ISHOF. Operators have dealt with leaking pools, and saw its deteriorating grandstands condemned last year, right before the YMCA Short Course Nationals.
The grandstands were closed before any one was injured, but experts say other facilities may not be so lucky.
“As soon as a pool opens, it starts becoming old,” says Tom Lachocki, CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo. “If you doubt that, just look at the changes that occurred with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and what happened in the last few years with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. There are changes in codes, there are new technologies coming out, so you have to treat your pool as an ongoing investment and keep it moving forward with technology.”
Health and safety concerns are something operators of older pools need to be especially proactive about, says Kevin Post, project manager at St. Louis-based Counsilman-Hunsaker. That’s because many of these facilities are “grandfathered” and can pass inspections without meeting current codes and standards.
New requirements for chemical handling, delivery systems, signage, management procedures, supervisory rules and emergency action plans evolve constantly — and operators of older pools should stay on top of them, even if they don’t technically have to.
Perhaps one of the biggest health and safety concerns for operators of older pools is the risk of recreational water illnesses.
“In the past two decades, there has been a substantial increase in the number of [RWI] outbreaks associated with swimming,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
In 2011, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services reported an 88.5 percent increase over the median number of Kansas City-area crypto cases in the past five years. Chlorine isn’t enough to completely kill crypto, so operators of older pools must ensure their facilities are as germ-resistant as possible, particularly because an older pool’s circulation system is more susceptible to weaknesses than a new facility.
“The most important things people should be looking at today is installing a supplemental disinfectant like UV or ozone,” Lachocki says. “[Operators] should also be doing things to enhance filtration to potentially remove more crypto from the water.”
Regardless of a pool’s age, if it cannot maintain a disinfectant residual, a healthy pH level and good water clarity, it’s time to consider replacement, Lachocki adds.
An older pool has to be able to battle not only crypto, but other communicable diseases. Pool operators have faced avian flu and swine flu (H121) outbreaks in the past few years, according to Jimmy Gibbs, aquatics manager for the city of Lawrence, Kan.
“Our customers had legitimate concerns on possible transmission through pool water, locker rooms and swimming lesson programs,” Gibbs says. “We have to have strong, positive relationships with our local health departments so we can be proactive in maintaining the health and safety of our customers and staff.”
Leaks can present another invisible hazard. Post recalls working on an audit of a 30-year-old outdoor pool. The leaky facility was losing so much water that maintenance staff pumped the seeping water back into the pool’s gutter; some of the liquid ended up collecting in a creek below the pool. That water was filtered and then pumped back into the pool.
Because of the water’s circuitous route back into the pool and all that it came into contact with, “it was not sanitary,” Post says.
Gibbs tells a similar story. In the 1980s, he operated a Works Progress Administration-built pool from the 1930s that was leaking heavily. While the crew added stopgap measures such as sealing joints and pressure-testing circulation lines, the leak remained; it wasn’t uncommon for them to add 5,000 gallons of water a day. Years later they discovered where all the water was going.
“Over the previous 60 years, millions and millions of gallons leaked through that joint, eroding a vast cavern under the pool basin,” Gibbs says. “A cavern large enough to stand up in — and a space large enough that could have easily swallowed up most of the pool had the concrete basin collapsed.”
Cracks in the deck are another danger area. That’s what nearly did in the Northwest Branch Pool. Cracks cause a tripping hazard, and a deck can get slippery over time if it isn’t properly cleaned and maintained.
“[In one pool I operated], the coping stones eroded to where they were rougher than sandpaper and guests were getting abrasions,” recalls Terri Smith, now a designer at Water Design Inc. in Salt Lake City.
Taking action For those in the same situation as O’Connor and the members of the Northwest Branch Swim Club, the question now is how to move forward. Is it worth it to spend a large sum of money on repairs, or is it time to close the doors and try to start fresh?
“If outdated facilities address the safety standards through proper management, it can still be a valuable amenity to the public,” Post says. “The challenge at this point is the cost to maintain the aged pool at a safe level vs. repairing/replacing the pool.”
Ultimately, it comes down to management.
“A pool is not affected by age nearly as much as by upkeep and maintenance,” says Sue Nelson, aquatic program specialist at USA Swimming, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. “There are pools [that were] built in the 1940s still operating just fine. There are pools built in the 1990s that need major renovations and are barely operational.”
Neglect often is what causes pools to close, Nelson adds. And good managers can spot small problems that can be fixed affordably before they become major expenses. Gibbs suggests that those who aren’t confident in their own expertise hire qualified pool engineers to help determine the condition of their pools — and decide whether it’s better to repair or completely start from scratch.
Make sure to inquire about the quality of your pool’s bonding system, overhead and underwater lights. See if visible cracks in the pool basin or walls can be found, as well signs of settling or heaving concrete. The circulation system should be checked to see if it is beyond repair, as well as the pump house or bathhouse.
But all of that costs money, and funding for anything can be hard to come by when those holding the purse strings don’t have a clear understanding of the problem.
“That’s why we are where we are today,” Nelson says. “We assume that everyone knows what it takes. In reality, your city council does not know. All they have is a number. There has to be a passionate spokesperson who can present the stakes.”
Once you’ve evaluated the state of your rundown pool, the next step is to present a clear picture of the current situation and detail a reasonable solution, whether that is serious renovation or building a completely new pool. Finally, Nelson says, you also must demonstrate how the proposed solution will increase income and maintain operational expenses.
In the end, that course of action saved Northwest Branch Pool. At that July meeting, members voted to move ahead with plans to secure a loan to finance the work.
“The fact that we stressed our potential failure of our 2013 County Health Department inspection due to our deteriorating deck condition was the biggest key,” O’Connor says. “I highlighted that when I built the renovation Web page. But it was also because when I came on as board president, I knew that a major pool renovation had been discussed for eight years and I decided that it was time to take the bull by the horns and plow ahead. So I personally pushed hard to our board and capital improvement committee that we should stop talking about it and actually do it this year.”