Sink or swim
CHRIS PARKER/TIMES NEWS Mary Lou Harvan, who is affiliated with a group that hopes to form a nonprofit organization to keep the Panther Valley swimming pool open to the public, speaks to the school board on Thursday.
A second group has approached the Panther Valley School District to offer to operate its once-again closed swimming pool.
The school board for weeks had been listening to requests by a loosely-organized group that plans to apply for nonprofit status to keep the pool most recently operated by a company called Water Wellness Inc. open to the public.
The school board was expected to decide at its public meeting Thursday whether to grant the group's request to keep the pool maintained for 90 days while it formed a business plan, applied for nonprofit status and did a feasibility study.
Group representatives on Wednesday had held a lengthy conversation with the board's Building and Grounds Committee. Committee members had mixed feelings about granting the request to maintain the pool for three months. The pool would remain closed during that time.
But the request was not listed on Thursday's public meeting agenda. Board President Jeff Markovich said that the committee had made no recommendations for board action.
After the public meeting, group member Susan Whitehead told the TIMES NEWS that school director David Hiles had told her earlier in the day that school officials had met with representatives of another group that is interested in operating the pool. That group is expected to present its plans at a Jan. 31 Building and Grounds Committee meeting.
"They are going to sit down and tell us what their business model would be, what their expectations would be, then probably asking us what our expectations would be, and how we would go about getting into a contract with another third party," said Superintendent Rose Mary Porembo, also after the public meeting. So, we'll start at the beginning, trying to understand what they expect, what they can bring to the school district, what the school district needs on our end.
"We'll start there, and maybe it will be a nice new marriage, or maybe it will be time to move on to something else. we're trying every avenue," she said.
Whitehead said she welcomes the new entity.
"I'm pleased that there is interest in saving the pool," she said after the meeting. "I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm pleased that there is interest."
In a related matter, the school board agreed to start legal action against Water Wellness to recoup the $37,333.76 owed by the company.
Water Wellness had signed a one-year, $69,500 contract with the school district in October 2011 to operate the pool for public use. The board the previous May had voted to close the pool to save money in light of severe state funding cuts.
But Water Wellness several months ago began failing to make its monthly payments as required by the contract. When the contract ended in December, the pool was closed.
At the start of the public meeting Thursday, Whitehead, Mary Lou Harvan, and Geri Vavra spoke to the board to ask that the pool be kept open.
Harvan, who is associated with the would-be nonprofit group, asked the board to reconsider the amount it was asking the group to pay, $2,347, for the three months of pool maintenance.
Whitehead said the group needed more time to obtain nonprofit status, and asked the board to delay a vote on whether to close the pool.
She also said the group had gathered hundreds of signatures on a petition to keep the pool open.
"We're raising money, and I'm begging you, please help us," she said.
Vavra, a former swimming coach at the school, said she "ran and managed the pool for three years."
That included such after-school activities as firefighter training, kayak guide training, lifeguard and water safety training for the public, scout badge activities, and birthday parties. She said the activities brought in an average of $26,000 a year in revenue.
However, she said the numbers of activities declined as the "pool was not actively marketed, and staffing issues hurt the reputation of the pool." Revenue prior to 2011 dropped drastically, she said, "leading the district to the decision to lease it last year."
Vavra described the successes of the district's swim team. She said she met with Maria Zupko of Water Wellness several times, offering suggestions and programs for young swimmers.
"Water Wellness never acted on any of my offers," Vavra said.
She also said that the water was kept at a relatively high temperature because of the therapeutic activities, tremendously increasing the costs of heating it. Vavra said the programs and activities offered by Water Wellness were "done very well and professionally."
She said she believes the district should "be the entity to ultimately have control of the pool, as it is a district-owned facility. I ask the board to please give time and effort to try to make the pool the gem that it is."