During the long, cold Idaho winters, an indoor aquatic center can be a ray of sunshine — a warm, family friendly place for those less inclined to snow sports, or even just those looking for a change of pace.
At least that’s what Chubbuck City Council member Melanie Evans cited as one of the reasons people seem to clamor for year-round water sports. Evans is leading an effort to build an indoor aquatic center in Chubbuck.
Eastern Idaho city leaders offer a host of reasons in support of their indoor swimming complexes, but they acknowledge the complexes aren’t cheap to build or maintain. Big-budget plans to build or update aquatic centers are pending or under consideration throughout the region.
Indoor aquatic centers can provide safe and controlled environments for swimming lessons and “aquatherapy.” The Blackfoot Swimming Pool and the Wes Deist Aquatic Center in Idaho Falls are both used by their county search and rescue departments for training. People also can use them to become certified for scuba diving.
Any city official will tell you that there is no shortage of uses for these aquatic centers.
The Blackfoot Swimming Pool, which was built in 1972, is facing a potential end to its 46-year life.
The city of Blackfoot has put a $3.9 million bond on the November ballot. The bond would extend the life of the dilapidated pool another quarter of a century.
A group called “Save the Blackfoot Swimming Pool,” which is attempting to ensure the passage of the bond, has nearly 1,000 followers on Facebook.
Carroll said that while he would very much like to see the Blackfoot pool live on, it’s essentially on borrowed time.
“Indoor pools are interesting because you have a natural sort of deterioration of the facility,” Carroll said.
Bud Cranor, city of Idaho Falls spokesman, said indoor pools require a lot of maintenance.
“There’s so much that goes into making an indoor aquatic center function,” Cranor said. “Besides your one-time cost for building it, you’ve got a lot of maintenance costs.”
According to Cranor and PJ Holm, Idaho Falls’ recreation superintendent, the Wes Deist Aquatic Center costs about $100,000 a year in utilities and $30,000 in chemicals.
And in addition to the money it takes to maintain the pool, Holm said another costly aspect of operating an indoor pool is staffing. Because there must always be two to three lifeguards on duty, as well as a front-desk person, Holm said it takes at least three people to keep the pool open for just a single lap swimmer.
“An indoor pool never makes money,” Carroll said.
The Blackfoot pool has a total operating cost of $425,000 a year. Its gross revenue is $90,000 a year.
The Wes Deist Aquatic Center, which Holm said had its best year last year with 122,000 visits, has a typical total operating cost of just under $1 million and a revenue of $450,000.
Why then, do residents push to build such money pits in their own cities?
“We did multiple surveys when establishing (budget) needs,” Evans said, “and without question, hands down, aquatics was the No. 1 thing people wanted.”
Though plans for a Chubbuck aquatic center were put on hold due to budget needs within the police and fire departments, Evans said they are by no means forgotten.
However, she added that if and when Chubbuck receives its own indoor pool, it will be after extensive planning and consideration.
“We are trying to be very careful as we go about studying this center because we do not want to have to bond for much of it,” Evans said. “We’re trying to figure out how to fund it through community partners and programming because that would help cover these ongoing costs.”
Evans said the city is working with a Utah architect who has assured her that in the future indoor aquatics centers will require much less maintenance.
“That was one of our big concerns was paying millions of millions of dollars for a pool, and right when we get done paying for it, it needs remodeled,” Evans said.
Carroll said he has discussed indoor pools with other mayors from different cities, and one thing they can unanimously agree on is that they are difficult.
The Wes Deist Aquatic Center, which is 14 years newer than the Blackfoot pool, has held up well, but it now faces maintenance problems for which the city will have to respond.
However, Holm said the Idaho Falls Department of Parks and Recreation recently started a comprehensive master plan for the entire department, which includes the aquatic center.
City officials will ask residents what should be done with the center, be it expansion or demolition and the construction of a new pool.
Not in the plan, however, is a complete closure of the pool, which Holm and Cranor both said has been an integral part of the community.
“(Aquatic centers) are costly, but they’re valuable parts of the community,” Cranor said. “It just provides a lot of different benefits to the community.”
Carroll said he can remember teaching his children to swim at the Blackfoot pool, and despite the cost to taxpayers, he would grieve its loss.
“You don’t know how many lives could be saved because a kid learned how to swim at the Blackfoot pool,” Carroll said.
Carroll added, “What kind of value does a citizen place on that kind of a place? Those are questions that the individual has to answer, and they answer at the polling booth.”