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Letter: Does Rossland need an indoor pool?
Dear Mayor and Council Members:
I understand that City Staff is contemplating applying for a grant to build an indoor swimming pool in Rossland. I would like to comment on this based on my previous experience as the Parks and Recreation Director for the Town of Taos, New Mexico. Taos and Rossland share many similarities: they’re small towns with developed ski areas nearby; both are blessed with warm summers; the main industry is tourism; and both are located in regions that offer great year-around outdoor recreation opportunities. My comments are also based on my experience as an Assistant Safety Supervisor for Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Seattle, Washington. I am a permanent resident and property owner in Rossland.
* Our swimming pool in Taos, as well as every other pool facility I encountered in my years working in public recreation, lost enormous amounts of money. The cost of building an indoor pool is a fraction of the cost of operating it over time. Small cities must be prepared to dedicate substantial financial resources to subsidize the operation of an indoor pool for the entire life of the pool and building.
Pools do not break even, or lose a little money. They lose a lot. In a small town with finite financial resources, a pool funnels resources away from other programs and facilities, and by fiscal necessity limits other offerings.
* If an indoor pool is not the number one recreation priority of the citizens of a small town, the town should not build it.
Building an indoor pool will become the city’s recreation priority, whether the citizens want it to be or not. The costs of the specialized nature of a pool, building envelope, and staff training will demand it. While having an indoor pool is a nice idea, there certainly seem to be other existing and proposed programs in Rossland that also demand substantial resources, such as the indoor ice arena, outdoor ice rinks, trails, the Miner’s Hall, and the proposed skate park.
* Indoor pool use is highly seasonal. Highest use is in the summer.
Highest use was due to children’s summer swim lessons and open swims. In Taos, winter pool use fell drastically. The pool was either empty or had only one or two swimmers in it for much of the day. Running a pool in winter meant that the Town of Taos spent an inordinate amount of money on a small handful of citizens. (Larger cities have different attendance patterns, as do pools that are regulation competition size, which the Rossland pool is not.)
* Unless pools are designed and built by architects, engineers, and contractors who specialize in swimming pools, unfortunate outcomes are likely. Small cities ignore this at their peril.
If a city uses professionals who are competent in other areas—but are inexperienced in building pools—the outcome can be nightmarish. Indoor pools are unique buildings that require balancing ventilation and safety with heating costs; humidity levels with building preservation and swimmer comfort; use of caustic and even dangerous chemicals; and more. I will be happy to discuss specifics upon request, but let’s just say that before I was hired, the Taos pool was closed for repairs for more years than it was open. During my tenure, I walked in to the pool building one morning to find the ceiling had caved in to the pool.
* Pool buildings cost more than other municipal buildings to maintain and repair. Do not budget for them based on the costs of existing city buildings.
It is a specialized environment with high humidity and airborne chemicals that, over time, are destructive to structural components. High maintenance and repair rates should be budgeted for even if the pool is built correctly, with appropriate materials, and to code.
* In the summer, the season of highest usage, people still prefer to swim in outdoor pools.
Once the Taos pool roof caved in, the city reinforced the structure and left the pool roof uncovered for that summer. Attendance was up. People loved being outside. Once the roof was replaced, pool attendance in the summer dropped to previous levels.
* Indoor pool environments can pose a danger of injury to pool employees.
According to WorkSafe BC, “Poor indoor air quality is a significant hazard in indoor pools.” Chloramines, by-products of pool chemistry, can pose risk of lung injury through long-term exposure. Although a quick internet search may indicate that there are ways to control chloramine levels, the factors involved are so complex and inter-related that I have never seen chloramines eliminated from indoor pools. (They’re not a problem in outdoor pools.) As Seattle discovered through a number of worker compensation claims, any municipality that operates indoor pools must understand that some percentage of pool employees, many of whom are young athletes, can be damaged from long-term exposure. (For an overview of workplace hazards in pools, see: http://www.worksafebc.com/publications/health_and_safety/by_topic/assets/pdf/poolsafebc.pdf)
Therefore, questions that should be answered by Council and Staff before proceeding include:
1. Are current cost projections realistic given the issues stated above? If the pool is built and the cost projections are unrealistic, who can be held accountable and how? The costs of an indoor pool will impact the City of Rossland and its taxpayers for years after the Mayor, Council, and perhaps even staff are no longer here.
2. Is an indoor pool the main priority for recreation in Rossland, even if it comes at the expense of other recreation programs and facilities?
3. How many people will an indoor pool serve during the winter months, given that a huge percentage of citizens here most likely participate in outdoor winter sports instead?
4. What would the cost to the city be to subsidize an indoor pool be per participant visit, versus other Rossland recreation facilities and programs?
5. Is the expense of building and maintaining an indoor pool a good use of taxpayer funds, given other necessary expenditures? Property taxes are very high in Rossland due to our snow removal costs, and we are facing major costs such as the Columbia Street project. Is it sustainable to keep driving up taxes in this community for a service that benefits a relative few?
We are fortunate that Rossland has an existing outdoor pool that enables children to learn to swim, and provides opportunities for people of all ages to exercise and enjoy themselves.
However, the attractive idea of having an indoor pool and the realities of paying for it are two different things. Building a year-around indoor facility for a town this size will be an enormous drain on the resources of the community for years to come. As a swimmer myself, I would be thrilled to have an indoor pool in town. But based on my professional experience, I conclude that building an indoor pool in Rossland would be a mistake. As a taxpayer and resident, I would rather not pay for that mistake for the rest of my life.
At best, the City of Rossland should improve the current outdoor pool facility. If there really is a large swimming community here (the actual usage numbers, not opinion polls, should tell you that), the city could fund the outdoor pool for extended months and hours of operation.
Feel free to contact me if you have questions. Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts with the Mayor, Council and Staff.
Elaine M. Powers