Making Public Recreation More Profitable

Eds Note: Craig’s previous post was on snow removal, now he takes on the public pools.  That’s Wausau weather for you, if you don’t like it, wait a minute.

Craig StahlBy Craig Stahl

The Wausau Daily Herald’s opinion page in yesterday’s paper states that Wausau’s three public pools are too small, outdated, and inefficient. It goes on to say that Weston’s aquatic center is more modern, but still only makes a modest profit each year. I am not in possession of the city’s balance sheets so I cannot comment on how profitable these public pools are, but I do have a general question regarding outdoor water facilities in Northern Wisconsin: Why do we build so many outdoor swimming facilities in such a mild climate?

Considering that temperatures during the summer usually seem to hover around the 80s during the summer in Northern Wisconsin (occasionally breaking into the 90s for a few weeks), a partly cloudy day with some breezy winds can be all it takes for somebody to decide it’s a bit too chilly to head down to the pool. I like to take my kids to the pool, but I can usually only take them on the weekends. There have been times where I have taken my kids to the splash pad at Marathon Park (which is a great public park for small children by the way), but they often complain that they are too cold (due to temperature, breeze, shade, etc.) and we end up leaving after only being there a few minutes. The kids really enjoy places like the Lodge at Cedar Creek, but sometimes there are so many people there that you cannot get in, not to mention that it is a lot more expensive to take your children there than a public pool or splash pad.

So, when it comes down to the economics of building public pools, how do we make them more profitable? How do we convince people to come and use our public pools when so many other things compete for their time during the 3 months of summer (like canoeing, hiking, biking, etc.)? What if the city enclosed a pool or two (possibly at the expense of shutting one down if necessary) to make the pools economically viable year-round? Obviously, an enclosed building adds considerably to the operations expense (not to mention the need for evening lifeguards during the school year, heat, etc.), but perhaps the increased availability could offset the operating expenses.

Chances are the city has already looked at this option in the past and decided against it, but maybe it could be something as simple as putting up a wind break around the pools. Is there a way we could use a removable roof of some sort to allow the pool to be open air during the hotter days of the summer – and then close the roof thereby allowing operation for a few more months out of the year?

Or should we do as the Herald suggests and shut down all the public pools and rely on the lake?

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18 responses to “Making Public Recreation More Profitable

  1. An interesting comment was that Weston’s pool only makes a modest profit. The key word there.. profit. The pool generates enough revenue to support itself without the help of tax payers. Do Wausau’s pools even come close?

    What about our schools, don’t Wausau’s high schools and middle schools all have indoor pools?

    I will be honest… I really can’t offer alot of advice as I can’t swim. But I do know this. In the summer, driving around, I see Weston’s pool filled to capacity most summer days (even those cooler ones). However, when putting the boat in at the Memorial park landing, I rarely see many people in that pool over all.

  2. To assign a monetary criterion to the success of a public pool misses the boat entirely. Taxpayer dollars should support public goods like parks, community pools, recreation centers, ice-rinks, and music and cultural events. These events pay dividends towards a communty’s overall happiness…pretty hard to measure on a balance sheet.

    The reason my family drives out to Rothschild and pays the extra money is because the facilities are so superior to anything near our house in Wausau.

    Barry

  3. Barry,

    What then would be the measure of success of a public pool.

    I don’t disagree that a pool is a “community good” worthy of some taxpayer money. But how many pools? How much money?

  4. The measure of success of a community pool would be the degree to which people, particularly children, enjoy their experience.

    The true measure of wealth of any community is its people: their sanity, creativeness and overall health and happiness. What other touchstone could there be?

    I’m not saying we should build a new aquatic center in Wausau. Perhaps the nearby areas have invested enough in their water recreation so the people of Wausau can make the sacrifice of driving or bussing out there. After all, it is one large community, irrespective of city zoning lines.

    Barry

  5. good point, the enjoyment of the facility is probably a very good measure.

    However, what about numbers? If a total of 5 people use a pool one a specfic day.. and those 5 people enjoy it, was it worth the money?

  6. AHA!!! Something I can talk about.

    As a long time lifeguard and oddly enough certified pool manager, took the class in college from my swim coach…I can actually comment.

    The great aquatic center versus the swimming pool is an amazing debate. There are high points and low points to both.

    So a traditional swimming pool, like Memorial, is a simple thing. Both in contruction and all the rest. Most city crews could build one. These pools are tremendous many use facilities. They are capable of…
    1. Swim Lessons
    2. Lap Swim
    3. Swim Teams
    4. General Tom Foolery

    They loose points because the size is limited, and the activities do not have as great appeal.

    The aquatic center, in most designs, is unable to really have swim lessons, or lap swim.

    But it is able to have giant amaounts of people, and it is arguably a little bit safe with the walk out “beach”.

    I think it is essential to no build an aquatic center, and to build a new Memorial Swimming pool. The costs of staffing a aquatic center are massive, lifeguards are trained professionals now and demand a living wage. Maintenance staff is full time in that environment.

    The primary costs are contruction, a one time fee, staffing and maintenance.

    The RS Pool offset costs by teaching swim lessons, and having a city swim team. Each of which cost little, but every dollar counts.

    The Weston pool, a squallid affair compared to the Rothschild Pool, did the same.

    As did Memorial, and the pool by that school whose name I forget.

    I think that was the golden age for pools. When pools were pools.

    I fear this desire to make everything pay for itself. How for example, does a lawn mower pay for itself. I think things like parks and pools and swing sets are things that munipalities should pay for with my taxes.

    God I love working at the pool. Me and Marsh could turn the pool green at will, and then we got to go home early.

    Cameron Loos, a current Ironman Triathlete and professor at Iowa I think, worked at RS Pool.

    Marsh met his Wife because of lifeguarding.

    Build pools.

  7. Good idea. Lets sell the pools to private developers. Then we’ll sell all parks to developers. We don’t need city hall so we’ll sell that to developers too.
    Ask anyone who runs the park department in Weston they barely made enough last year to break even. What will happen this year? Don’t you think the Park department looked at all of this when they made their decisions? Go to the city page and read all of the minutes for their meetings. They have been studying this for years.
    Not all children in Wausau can afford to go to the Weston aquatic center. They are the ones who visit our pools. Those same children would not be able to afford to go to an aquatic center if we had one.

  8. I am not denying that pushing tax dollars toward pools and parks is a valid (& good) use of those funds. And although I think it is great when a public amenity (after seeing the play last night, had to use that term) can pay for itself, I don’t think that should be a requirement.

    I just ask for the reasonableness of the expense. Remember, tax dollars are a limited quanity, a zero sum game. Every tax dollar that goes toward a pool (or park) then does not go to something else (like bus service, police/fire protection, street repair).

    So we are talking about three pools in Wausau. 3 pools when there are already 2 aquatic centers in the metro area. Based on number of people using these three pools, is it wise to throw tax money into all three? Should we maybe only have two in Wausau proper? Or only 1?

    What is the average head-count of a wausau pool? Is it 10, 15? If it is that low, that is 10 x 3 pools = 30? In that case, to serve 30 people, wouldn’t two pools do the job?

    Maybe all three wausau pools get used to their maximum.. in which case all are needed. I just know those days that I use that boat landing, there are more people at the landing or playing that frisbee golf game than are at the pool.

    What about the pools controlled by the schools, are they available for public use during the summer?

  9. John Muir used to be available for open swim. It is no longer. Horace Mann was never open for open swim. Ask the school district why they won’t open it up. D.C. Everest does.

  10. There are more pools besides John Muir, and Horace Mann, UWMC has a pool, and there is also the Splash Pad in Marathon Park. I think having the school district open up its pools to the general public during the summer is a good idea, but lets take everything one step futher. There has been a lot of talk about regionalizing, and it can be taken even further. There are other ways the school district can benifit the community. Why not have the librarys(at least at the highschool level, and maybe the middleschool) also open to the public. If the layout is designed properly most of the child saftey issue can be managed. There is no reason that taxpayers should support the MCPL system, as well as 40 other libraries in the Wausau School District, as well as the other districts in the county. Every school, elementary, middle, and highschool has a library, there is a library at NTC, UWMC, and the entire MCPL system. why not combine them all into the same system. MCPL aready has a reading program, why not incorporate it into the school district. Why not make all the books interchangable. By combining resources, we would increase the potential for a wider array of books on a wider array of topics. There is a school in every neighborhood, and the all already have librarys. I know there are a ton of problems with this idea, but I think a lot of them can be worked out and solved. It seems a waste that most of those librarys only get used 9 months a year.

  11. Matthew
    There are good reasons why school and public libraries should be kept entities. There are some major problems with the “joining” idea, besides safety and money.
    I just can’t see any, pardon the pun, Tom, Dick , Harry, or Sally walking into the school ‘to check out’ a book! Sorry to say we do have alot of rather ‘unique’ individuals out there in the world.
    Another thought is, what to do about the fact that most schools are closed for a total of 4 mths. closed every year. Among other issues,
    who receives the funding and is responsible for the legal financial part? Who is responsible for the hiring of personel? Who is responsible for choosing the materials?
    Because in case you don’t know this, schools do ban books, a few are the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Of Mice and Men by John Steinback, etc. please notice that most of those are what we consider ‘classics’, there are a lot of other books if you use wish to view the various lists check out (www.ala.org). I understand the need to ban certain books in the school system, but I do want the right to be able to obtain the material in the public sector.
    Books-materials are a good thing, so is free public access which is why “public” libraries are a vital assest to any community just as our schools are.
    So the joining of the public system with the school is not a feasible or viable plan, just to many problems.
    Besides most “libraries”, be it school, public, private do share materials via the interlibrary loan process, sometimes a small fee is charged to cover mail.

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  13. I think that it is necessary to evaluate the structure of the facility but the philosophy or sensibility of the managers and I would strongly suggest that Wausau struggles in both areas. The Marathon County Parks Department has no idea how to make the pools fun! They do very little programming, have developed a “hitler” mentality when it comes to fun. As a mom, recently moving to the area, I am amazed at the poor job the parks department does at managing the pools.

  14. Without piling on here and making characterizations, it is not unfair to say that there is room for improvement in the area of making our pools more welcoming as well as more attractive from both the “hard” and the “soft” side of things. As the poster correctly points out, there are important aspects to consider from the standpoint of the infrastructure and also in the customer service area. Looking forward, I think that we can realize significant improvement in these areas.

  15. I am going to jump in here about thge librarries and schools.

    From experience I say this.

    The open library policy is one that cannot work.

    I bring this specific idea to the table…if we open the library at DC Everest High School to you, then it goes to everyone.

    If it goes to everyone, it is open to registered sex offenders living in the community.

    Having them in a school environment under the guise of using the library is problematic at best, horrifying at worst.

    A local institution dealt with this issue.

  16. It would seem to me that “access” to school libraries is either already done or somewhat easy.

    Many schools (usually colleges, but sometimes others) are part of the WISCAT system (the statewide interlibrary loan system). Anyone can request books through WISCAT from terminals at any MCPL branch.

    There is now a regional system where libraries share materials that works wonderfully. My understanding is that the MCPL has seen a huge number of requests from materials from this regional system since it went online. This system is almost transparent in that you can find and request materials from this regional system right from the MCPL catalog system.

    If the community would really benefit from having the school library collections more available, I would say the most cost efficient way to do that would be for the schools to come on board with the WVLS regional system. Then people could get (almost) any library materials from the schools without ever having to physically set foot in the schools.

    I know there are wonderful advantages to being able to browse a library in person, but having access to the collection online is almost as good and seems like reasonable solution to this kind of issue.

  17. That is an awesome point. I had not thought of that at all. I am less of a library person than I should be. I think there is something about buying used books from Al that strikes me as good.

    But that sort of put it together for me. I shall pay off my overdue fine this week.

    Thanks.

  18. Anza D'Antonio

    After attending several of the parks dept./city council hosted swimming pook talks earlier this year, it is disappointing to see that none of my (low cost) suggestions to improve the pools have been incorporated. Specifically, with respect to Memorial Pool: 1) There is no shade area in the kiddie swim area. I suggested that a couple of umbrellas be placed in this area as children under 6 mo. need to be in the shade and sunscreen is not recommended for this young age. I routinely see very young children at the pool with their older siblings/parents. 2) The free swim evening is Wednesday evenings-same night as the concerts on the 400 block. More families would swim if the free night was moved. 3) I was told the only break for “adult swim” is at 3:10-when most adults are working. Wouldn’t it make sense to provide a 10 minute break per hour for adults to swim? This is how it used to be done. 4) There are no picnic tables inside the pool area. Having a spot for residents to eat a picnic lunch would be a very cheap improvement. I could go on and on but I’ll stop for now.

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