There aren’t many meetings you can attend where some of the pre-meeting conversation goes like this: “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!”
Swimmers can get away with that kind of banter, and swimmers of all sorts showed up Thursday night to talk about what the city should do to keep Mack Pool open. The public meeting was held at the media center of the Open School @ Mack, just down the hall from the pool – but far enough away to smell only the faintest whiff of chlorine.
Closing Mack Pool, or turning it over to the Ann Arbor school system, was one of the options proposed by city administrator Roger Fraser at an April 13, 2009 council working session, as a way to help balance the city’s budget in the face of declining revenues projected for 2010 and 2011. There’s about a $100,000 shortfall between what it costs to run the pool each year and the revenues it takes in. Figuring out how to make up that difference is the goal of the Mack Pool Task Force, which hosted Thursday’s meeting.
Response to the Threat of Closing
After getting news that Mack Pool might be closed in the summer of 2010, supporters had quickly mobilized, as did users of the Ann Arbor Senior Center, which is the other parks and recreation facility that had been slated to close. Members of the Dawn Ducks and master’s swimming – two groups that regularly use the indoor pool – were particularly vocal.
This summer, the city formed task forces for both Mack Pool and the senior center, and gave them the goal of coming up with recommendations that would allow the city to keep the facilities open. Public meetings for the Ann Arbor Senior Center were held in October. [See Chronicle coverage: "Seniors Weigh In On Fate of Center"] Thursday’s meeting for Mack Pool followed a similar format. After an overview of the situation, presented by Colin Smith – the city’s parks and recreation services manager, who also serves on the task force – the gathering broke into three small groups for discussion.
Several members of the Mack Pool Task Force, appointed by city council in August 2009, attended the session, including Scott Rosencrans, chair of the city’s Park Advisory Commission; Nell Stern, a member of the Dawn Ducks; Ed Sketch, coordinator of the Mack Pool users group; Chris Murphy, whose daughter is part of the Ann Arbor Aquarians Synchronized Swim Team, which trains at the pool; and Carsten Hohnke, a city councilmember for Ward 5, where Mack Pool is located.
Other politicians attended too, including city councilmember Mike Anglin (Ward 5) and Mayor John Hieftje. Hieftje gave some opening remarks to the group, reminding them that Ann Arbor was not alone in facing financial challenges. Lower amounts from state revenue-sharing as well as a decrease in local property taxes have caused cities across Michigan to suffer, he said. Ann Arbor is in better shape than most, but still needs help from the public to deal with the situation.
Colin Smith told the group that the task force has formed three subcommittees, focused on revenues, expenses and city/school use. Though the pool is owned by the city, Ann Arbor Public Schools has an agreement – in perpetuity – for use of the pool during school hours. That limits the amount of programming the city can schedule, and AAPS has agreed to renegotiate the agreement to reflect current realities, Smith said. [The principal of the Open School @ Mack, Naomi Zikmund-Fisher, is on the pool task force but did not attend Thursday's meeting.] A draft of the new agreement is expected by late December or early January.
Raising Revenues, Cutting Costs
On the expense side, Smith said the bad news is that there’s no silver bullet. Over the past decade, the city has cut costs at Mack down to the bare bones, he said. The subcommittee that’s looking at expenses went over the budget line item by line item, and weren’t able to find significant places to cut.
Energy costs are a huge expense, Smith said, required to heat the pool and run equipment. An energy audit was conducted to see if there were significant ways to improve efficiency, and there weren’t. The city has applied for a grant to get LED lights installed in the pool deck, but that will only save about $2,000 to $3,000 annually, he said.
More opportunities come from possible revenue growth, Smith said. Most of the ideas discussed on Thursday fell into that category, and many of the suggestions focused on increasing the number of people who use the pool. The following is a list of suggestions that were voiced during the meeting:
- Offer more classes: Water aerobics, scuba, kayaking, and more. Partner with local gyms or places such as the VA hospital, which provides therapy and programs like kayaking courses for disabled veterans.
- Do a better job of marketing the pool. Put fliers in doctors’ offices, offer coupons, advertise with University of Michigan programs like MFit.
- Hold fundraisers and donor drives. Partner with the University of Michigan to raffle off time with their swimming coaches.
- Expand the number of morning hours available, as well as the “lunch swim,” which currently runs only from 11 a.m. until noon. Extend the lunch swim hours until 1 p.m. or later. (This would be contingent on renegotiating an agreement with the school system.)
- Increase user fees. Some believe that fees for master’s swimming could be doubled, for example. Currently, passes for a two-month master’s swimming session, five days a week, costs $105 for city residents, $128 for non-residents. Other categories of fees could be raised as well.
- Caution came with the discussion of raising fees – it’s also important to keep the facility accessible to all groups, regardless of income. Perhaps that can be handled via scholarships, some said. Others suggested outreach to residents at nearby Miller Manor, a public housing complex. Grants to fund programs for underprivileged populations might help with that.
- Offer a greater variety of passes. Currently, you can pay a daily fee or get a pass for the entire season. In addition, offer passes for shorter periods, like one to three months.
- Provide food and other amenities to purchase.
- Provide more pool toys.
- As much as possible, make sure at least some lanes are open for lap swims.
- Solicit school groups and clubs to rent the pool for parties.
- Provide child care for parents who want to do lap swims.
- Start a grassroots marketing effort, using yard signs and word of mouth, to promote Mack Pool as a “hidden gem.”
- Save chemical costs by using an ionizing process rather than chlorine. Market the pool as chlorine-free.
- Invest in variable frequency drives for the pool pumping system, to reduce energy costs.
- Buy a “pool blanket” to place over the top of the pool when it’s not in use, preserving heat.
- Start a public swim team for kids, similar to ones that are active during the summer at the outdoor pools.
- Invest in a geothermal system to heat the pool. Hieftje said that the city is looking at partnering with a company to install a large geothermal heating system in the downtown area, which perhaps could be extended to Mack Pool. He said the city’s energy commission, on which he serves, would explore the possibility.
There was also some discussion of the pool temperature, which is currently set at 82 degrees. Preferences differ among the user groups, with master’s swimmers preferring a cooler water temperature, and others wanting it warmer. One suggestion centered on dividing the pool into two sections, and maintaining different water temperatures in each section. However, Smith noted that the water source is the same for the entire pool, and could not provide variable temperatures.
Ed Sketch, a task force member, noted that at this point it was difficult to convince the city to invest in Mack Pool. Why would you want to do that, if it’s possibly going to close? he said. “In a sense, we’ve got to crack the business model first,” he said. “Once you’re over that hump, a whole lot of things become possible.”
Timeline for Recommendations
Colin Smith told the group that the city planned another public meeting on Dec. 10, 2009 to present a draft of recommendations and get feedback. Those recommendations would then be presented to the city’s Park Advisory Commission at their meeting on Jan. 19, 2010. PAC would vote on the recommendations, which would be forwarded to city council.
Council is expected to consider the recommendations in February, and make a final decision on the overall 2011 budget in May. Between now and then, “we have a lot to do,” Smith said. “We have a lot to do quickly.”