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Akst: Time to pool our resources

Published: Friday, Sept. 6, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Swimming pools have closed for the season (Monday in DeKalb and Aug. 20 in Sycamore), but angst about the future of our very nice pools remains.

We have a 7-year-old, so I had a good look at both pools this season.

Both are near – or maybe past – their usable lifespan, plus there are Americans with Disabilities Act compliance issues at Hopkins Pool. Municipal pools last about 30 to 40 years. Sycamore’s pool is 31 years old, and DeKalb’s is 39.

Both pools are functional, but even casual observation reveals that both need major TLC to reclaim point-of-pride status.

And in November 2008, Carol Stream-based Williams Architects submitted to the DeKalb Park District an analysis of Hopkins Pool that’s way more than casual observation.

With explicit detail and photos, the analysis documents problems so big that the architectural firm (which says it has performed about 100 similar analyses over 20 years) concludes: “We do not recommend renovating the existing facility. The cost of benefit ratio to modify the current facility in a fashion that could achieve all the benefits provided in an entirely new, state-of-the art, pool complex are not a justifiable or prudent use of District resources.”

What was recommended instead could be described as a transition from a straight-up “swimming pool” to more of a water park facility. That might be bad news for those who just want to swim.

However, the report notes, those who just want to swim are a minority.

“What has changed over the years is the realization that these features [current Hopkins amenities] alone do not provide a broad enough appeal to continue to bring patrons to the facility,” the report said. “Over 80 percent of bathers spend the majority, if not all, of their time in the shallow water, three feet or less in depth.”

The report’s total estimated cost (which includes a 12 percent contingency) to reinvent Hopkins pool is north of $5 million.

That’s not to say $5 million is the final number, and I’ve read lots of material asserting that infrastructure/amenity construction costs in the wake of the great recession have come in much cheaper. Still, we have a ballpark cost.

Meanwhile, the Sycamore Park District says it’s at the end of a communitywide strategic planning process. From this process, the five-member board of commissioners has received four top priorities. One is to “replace the now 31-year-old swimming pool,” according to the district’s fall newsletter.

Meanwhile (yes, another meanwhile), a Daily Chronicle editorial last month chided the DeKalb Park District and said it “all but abandoned” a renovation plan because three new board members had been elected. The previous board had considered borrowing $5 million to pay for renovating the pool.

Beyond the sticker shock, some worry about borrowing $5 million, given that taxpayers will be paying off bonds for the Sports and Recreation Center until 2019.

There’s also a time crunch, because the DeKalb Park District has until 2015 to submit a plan to make the pool ADA compliant.

The idea of a joint project with the Sycamore Park District is going nowhere because DeKalb and Sycamore … well, moving on.

Despite the challenges, DeKalb and Sycamore must avoid trying to do pools on the cheap. Borrow the money, pursue grants, raise fees, arm twist rich locals, get some corporate partnership, try again on a joint venture, and if necessary, raise taxes a bit (yes, I said that).

No matter what, create wonderful, functional facilities we will love for decades.

When the Daily Chronicle first reported the Williams analysis, I remember somebody dismissing the whole thing, saying the plan was for a “Cadillac community” but “we’re a Chevy kind of town.”

For one thing, a Corvette – one of the finest sports cars in the world – is a Chevy. For another, whenever a community sells itself short, everybody loses.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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