Citizen Wausau

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Public Pools: Use It or Lose It

by on March 15th, 2009

The debate continues…  The debate about the war in Iraq?  No.  The debate about earmark spending in congress?  No.  The debate about bailing out banks and other large companies?  No.  I speak of course of the debate about what to do about Wausau’s three community swimming pools.


I should probably be clear on from what angle I look at this issue.  Although I am not a resident of the City of Wausau, I own and manage quite a bit of property in the City; I look at the issue as a taxpayer.  I don’t swim, I don’t know how to swim, I have very little desire to know how to swim.  I in no way directly benefit from swimming pools, water parks or anything of that nature.


That being said, just because I see no personal use in this amenity does not mean that I do not acknowledge that others do.  For a while, on the back bumpers of Everest Metro police cars they didn’t have “To Serve and Protect” but instead had “It’s About Quality of Life.”  I fully agree.


For those unfamiliar, Wausau has three outdoor swimming pools distributed throughout the city.  Over recent years, use of these pools has been on a steady decline while the costs to maintain them have been on a steady increase.  The term that I like is “hemorrhaging cash”.  The debate is do we continue to put money into the pools (based on their age, they are all in need of high dollar updates/repairs), do we abandon the pools for a centralized water park similar to those run by Weston and Schofield/Rothschild, or do we follow a completely different path?


One argument I hear often that I disagree with is that the Wausau pools should be closed because they don’t make money.  The water parks run by some of the other Metro communities come very close to breaking even and from time to time, might actually have numbers in the black.  I disagree with this argument because that is not the job of government.  It is not the job of government to provide services that the market can provide.  And if there was money to be made in swimming pools and water parks, private companies should take advantage of the profit-making opportunity.  The job of government is to provide those services that have no way they can “make money” – such as “quality of life” amenities.


Parks don’t make money.


However, to be fair, parks don’t cost nearly as much to maintain as the pools do.  It would be interesting to know that based on use, what does it cost per dollar for people who use some of the parks in town vs. what does it cost per dollar for people who use the pools?  This is a number that we can probably never learn because the number of people who use the parks would be an estimate at best.


I understand that these neighborhood pools are about quality of life.  I get that, they are amenities similar to parks and expecting them to cash flow is unreasonable.  On the other hand, if an amenity’s costs are disproportionate to the number of people using that amenity, one needs to ask if the pools really do contribute to the “quality of life” in the City of Wausau as a whole.


The City Council has agreed to lower admissions to $1.00 with the hope of increasing the use of the pools.  Again, the object isn’t to make more money – the object is to increase use.  If the fees are lowered and things like concessions and more chairs are added and use of the pools continues to decline – it should be clear that maybe this amenity does not contribute to the quality of life.


So then what?  Wausau builds an aquatic park like Weston’s?  Well that is just silly.  How many aquatic parks does one metro area need?  Weston has a big one.  Schofield/Rothschild have one… let’s not forget the Lodge at Cedar Creek, though this is a for-profit privately owned one, it still counts.


One of the biggest wastes of taxpayer money in this metro area is duplication of services.


What is the answer to the pool question?  I don’t know… but I do think that the decision to hold off on multi-million dollar improvements and doing some little things to increase participation is a good way to go.


I would love to see partnerships between not only Weston-Schofield-Rothschild-Wausau-etc., but partnerships with the school districts, the UW, and other entities who have pools would be a wonderful thing.


I do believe though, that with decreasing the user fees and adding amenities and the “use it or lose it” publicity around the pools will make this summer critical.  If the pools continue to see declining usage, I think even the strongest supporters of the neighborhood pools will have to concede to the writing on the wall.

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