Polk County pools: An asset or a liability

POLK COUNTY -- Those venturing to Polk County's two public pools (excluding those in West Salem) likely aren't thinking about how much revenue each is pulling in and whether it is enough to cover the cost of operation.No, it's far more likely those looking to take a dip are trying to escape the summer heat or get in their daily workout.Even in the busy summer months most public pools can't cover costs on admissions, memberships and rental fees alone -- and the pools in Dallas and Independence are no exception.While the Dallas Aquatic Center pulled in about $436,000 in revenue during the 2012-13 fiscal year that ended July 1, costs to run the facility came in at $723,000. That nearly $300,000 deficit was covered by the city, meaning the center covers approximately 60 percent of its costs.According to Jason Locke, Dallas' economic development director who oversees pool operations, that figure is above average for similar facilities in the state. Locke said once you truly sort out the actual cost and revenue picture, the average revenue-to-cost ratio for pools is about 50 percent to 55 percent.Meanwhile, the Independence Pool, operated by the Monmouth-Independence YMCA, is open only during the summer months. It relied on a $10,000 subsidy from the city of Independence to break even during the 2012 season. Graphic by Pete Strong The Dallas Aquatic Center recoups about 60 percent of its annual costs, with the deficit covered by the city. Those who manage the facilities, however, claim benefits of the pools can't be measured in dollars and cents alone.Locke said the aquatic center is a community asset that draws more than 100,000 visits each year for classes, lessons, recreational swimming, and clubs and swim teams using the facility."You go there any morning and the place is packed...," he said. "It's become more difficult to manage the day-to-day schedule because of all the user groups. I think it's a tangible asset that is being used by thousands of people."Locke cited health benefits and year-round recreational opportunities as other ways to measure the center's value."Nobody that I know of is making money on it," he said of operating a public pool. "The idea that anybody thinks or thought that this was going to be profitable ... I guess it all depends on how you measure profitability. If you measure it in recreational opportunities and social opportunities and health benefits, it's a different calculation."Similarly, Wes Hare, the Monmouth-Independence YMCA branch manager, said having the pool available provides valuable services to the community, an example of which is offering swim lessons to all third-graders in the Central School District.Hare said before taking over as branch manager this year, he brought his own children to the pool for lessons. A resident of Salem, he said Independence's pool offered a better value with an outdoor setting and longer lesson slots. Photo by Pete Strong Two-year-old Levi Johnson and his mother, Jessie, ride through the "river" at Dallas Aquatic Center on Sunday. "The reason the YMCA is big on pools is that we feel it's part of the healthy living initiatives that we have," Hare said. "(Swimming) is excellent for health for so many reasons."Both pools will be touting those benefits to increase use in the future.The Dallas Aquatic Center had a complete energy efficiency upgrade in 2009, which reduced the cost to run the center from a peak of $1 million to about $730,000 on an annual basis in recent years. That will be reduced further when a loan for the work -- it was paid for with incentives and a loan from the city -- is paid off.The Dallas City Council approved a single rate admission (as opposed to resident and nonresident rates) earlier this year to boost revenue after a 10-month trial. Locke said it's too early to say what the long-term impact of the shift will be, but the trial projected a $20,000-per-year boost in revenue."We would ultimately like to get (the revenue-to-cost ratio) to 70 percent or 75 percent," Locke said. "I think every year we get closer to that, to make it less of a burden on the (city's) general fund."Hare is exploring both cost-reducing measures as well as campaigns to increase use. He wants to encourage staff retention, a move that would benefit workers with higher wages and reduce the pool's training expenses. As far as increasing use, he wants to stress the aspects that were attractive to his family."One of the big things we will be looking at for next year is maximizing open swim and swim lesson times, making sure we are offering enough sessions," he said.Hare said it's unlikely increasing admission rates would be part of any revenue-boosting strategy."I'm definitely doing more research to find a good balance," Hare said. "We are a not-for-profit, so we are not trying to generate tons of revenue. If we can pay the employees a little bit more, if I can offer more services and more scholarships, that's what I look to generate revenue for."With a hotter-than-normal summer so far, chances are good the pool will end the year at better than break-even status -- with assistance from the city."We are having a good year," Hare said. "When I say `good year,' we aren't getting rich. We are ahead of the game right now. We will see what happens by the end of August."


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