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Why aren't you swimming right now?

Rope swings are among the new, low-cost amenities added to the Don Nakata Memorial Pool; Tarelle Parker attempts to swing from one to the next Monday.  - RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo
Rope swings are among the new, low-cost amenities added to the Don Nakata Memorial Pool; Tarelle Parker attempts to swing from one to the next Monday.
— image credit: RYAN SCHIERLING/Staff Photo

It’s a boon to adult health and fitness regimens, and at the same time about the cheapest daycare option around.

Frequently overrun with raucous youngsters, it’s nevertheless been likened to a cathedral. It is hugely popular with the public, but doesn’t cover costs.

On the eve of its second birthday, the Bainbridge Aquatics Center is everything islanders were promised.

And more. And less, but they’re getting around to fixing that.

“One of the blessings of not having ‘everything’ when we opened is that we can add things as the years go by, to keep things fresh and exciting,” said John DeMeyer, aquatics director for the Bainbridge Island Park and Recreation District.

The center – which combined the old Ray Williamson rectangle with a new 250,000-gallon, multi-use tank at a cost of some $5.8 million – opened in mid-December 2001.

With a zero-depth-entry “beach” for toddlers and older users, and such kid-oriented novelties as a jet-driven “lazy river” and a water slide, it was said to have something for everyone.

Indeed, its fans are many.

“We love it,” said Steve Buitenveld, a high school paraeducator at the pool last week to work with Tim, a special-needs student. “Last year we swam three days (a week). Tim and I really like the hot tub. Don’t we, Tim?”

Tim smiled, as Buitenveld added, “It’s accessible, (and) you can come anytime you want.”

Said frequent swimmer Jim Kondek, hair still damp after a dip: “I’m afraid to say it because it might get full and crowded, but it’s the best-kept secret on Bainbridge.”

Park officials, though, want to see the secret get out so more paying customers come through the gate.

Construction cost overruns, a fund-raising shortfall and steep overhead have combined to create ongoing financial challenges for the district.

Of the park district’s $4 million annual operations budget, some $1.2 million will go to support aquatics facilities and programs – subsidized by a district general tax levy that went up 17 percent in 2003.

During a recent session, park commissioners were taken somewhat aback to find that so much of the district budget is now devoted to a single recreational activity.

“It is kind of remarkable,” said Dave Shorett, park commissioner. “Of course, it wouldn’t make any difference if the revenue came close to the expenditure, but unfortunately it doesn’t.”

THE LEVY

Youth sports teams, kids and seniors, fitness groups – there just wasn’t enough room in the pool.

So in February 1999 – on the fifth try – island voters approved a $4.5 million construction bond for a second pool, on the understanding that an additional $500,000 in private funds would be raised to complete the project.

Unforeseen site preparation work drove up costs; amenities and even some basic features were pared out of the project and then put back in, to the point that the locker rooms nearly went unpainted.

After a $100,000 donation from Bainbridge Rotary – which purchased the “naming rights,” and dubbed the new pool for the late Don Nakata – the private fund drive was not entirely successful, although DeMeyer said it is now at about 80 percent of its goal.

In the end, the park district was forced to take out a $700,000 low-interest loan from the state to cover the difference – essentially paying for the amenities that were supposed to be the pool’s biggest draw in the first place.

The district is now saddled with annual payments of $88,000 through 2011 to retire that debt.

“The biggest problem is this $88,000 per year,” Shorett said. “If we didn’t have that, we could spend that on other programming, maintenance and other activities. We don’t have that for the next eight years.”

During the pool campaign, backers said a facility with more perks would cover a higher percentage of operating costs than the spartan Williamson tank. That has proven true, but the much higher overhead has meant a greater actual subsidy.

In 2001, the last year of one-pool operation, the Ray Williamson facility cost about $683,000 to run, against $441,000 in revenue; the balance was made up from the park district’s general fund.

In 2004, the two-pool complex will cost about $1.2 million, against a projected $793,000 in revenue.

The disparity is not surprising to Terry Lande, new park district director, who says public pools are inherently money-losing propositions.

“The people I’ve met who said their pools aren’t subsidized worked for a city, and hid the subsidy somewhere else (in the budget),” Lande said.

A pool facility, he said, is long on fixed costs – building and pool heating, water treatment, lights – and short on areas in which adjustments can be made.

An unexpected spike in propane prices this year cost the pool thousands of dollars.

And staffing can be overwhelming, because of the number of lifeguards required to keep the pool safe during open swims. Permanent pool staff and part-time lifeguard salaries alone will cost the district more than $800,000 in 2004.

“You have to put the same number of lifeguards on the deck, whether you have 20 people in the pool or 200 people in the pool,” Lande said.

THE CATHEDRAL

Whatever the pool’s financial challenges, it seems to enjoy the overwhelming favor of those who use it.

Save for the inevitable disagreement over water temperature a few degrees either way, a sampling of pool users at various hours brings uniform praise.

“I think it’s a great facility – not too big or small,” said Briony Campbell, who comes once a week to swim laps and lounge in the spa. “I’ve lived all over the world and it’s one of the best as far as size. I used to swim at the UW in the early morning, and it was really crowded.”

Richard Nelson likens the swimming experience there to “backstroking through a cathedral.”

Typical of users on a given afternoon are Christi Halvorson and Kami Freke, who frequent the facility for “play dates” with their young children.

“The pool is really kid-friendly,” Freke said, “especially for toddler-age kids because of the toys...and the river with the current. There’s just a lot variety.”

A single dip costs $3 for kids and seniors, $4 for adults. Prices go down through the purchase of various multi-swim “punch passes,” while a household of swimmers can buy family pass for unlimited year-long use for $533.

Freke was among several swimmers and parents who said they would still come to the pool even if the price went up.

“I’d pay anything for variety in my week,” she said.

Come January, pool fees will be hiked by 5 percent across the board. At Lande’s direction, DeMeyer is also looking at ways to tighten up pool hours to cut costs.

Time is also providing a better idea what level of patronage to expect, and thus how to budget the facility better. The novelty of the newly opened facility brought curious swimmers from around the region; usage then saw an inevitable dip, although DeMeyer said participation is starting to climb again.

In its first year, a typical weeknight “open swim” drew 75 people to the pool; this year, that number is 43. A weekend session drew an average of 288 swimmers a year ago, just 139 this year.

In Lande’s view, “We have to think of a way to market it better, to get more people to come to it.”

Special promotions are becoming more regular. For a recent “Ladies Movie Night,” the film “Thelma and Louise” was projected on a sheet over the water. A youth-oriented event featured, humorously, the film “Jaws.”

And the amenities themselves are increasing, some at only marginal cost; new floating toys and a second rope swing are said to be drawing longer lines than the water slide. Also, the building was plumbed for various spray features and a sauna that will be added as funds allow.

“We’re trying to create an environment where there’s so much to do, you can’t do it all,” DeMeyer said.

The next significant upgrade will be an “ozonator,” a water treatment system that cuts down on chlorine use.

When an ozonator system was added to the Williamson pool in the mid-1990s, it brought the return of many recreational swimmers who had been driven away by the once-overbearing chemical smell in air.

A $70,000 ozonator fund drive for the new pool is now under way; a “Haunted Pool” fund-raiser at Halloween drew 700 participants and raised $4,000. With money set aside in the 2004 budget, the district is close to having enough for the new system, which DeMeyer and others believe will bring in more swimmers still.

And that, ultimately, is the challenge: to inspire more people to swim, and those who already do to swim more often.

For some, the message is unneeded.

“I have nothing but wonderful and glowing things to say about the pool and the people who work here,” Richard Nelson said, sitting in the spa. “For the guys who built the pool, God bless those people.”

Freelance writer Tina Lieu contributed to this report.

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