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No progress on Allentown's aging swimming pools

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Jun 09 2013 09:43:43 AM CDT
ALLENTOWN, PA -

Those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer may not include swimming for hundreds of children living in the center of Allentown.

More than a year ago, members of City Council and residents made it clear they want the Fountain Park swimming pool along Martin Luther King Drive brought back to life to serve those kids.

But the pool, which has numerous cracks, remains closed, empty and deteriorating -- as it has been since 2009.

It may never reopen.

The city, which once had eight swimming pools, has made no progress toward increasing the number of pools for its residents. It has four old but operating pools, plus two spray parks. Three of those pools open this weekend, the fourth next weekend.

On May 16, 2012, City Council passed a resolution promising Allentown residents swimming pools in close proximity to their neighborhoods.

Even if Fountain Pool would be rebuilt, the people may not come, according to John Mikowychok, Allentown’s new parks and recreation director, who questions the wisdom of spending a lot of money on old pools.

He prefers gradual replacement of Allentown’s pools, but predicted the first new pool for the city “is at least more than a year away.”

“The current crop of families and recreational users aren’t going to the spartan rectangular pools of the 1950s and ’60s,” said Mikowychok. “A public swimming pool with solely that spartan rectangular facility is absolutely passé today. You would spend that kind of money, then watch your swimming pool set with 100 people a day.

“Perhaps we could spend $160,000 to $250,000 repairing Fountain Pool, but then you would have a facility that your parents and grandparents enjoyed and it would have less than stellar attendance, unless it is blistering hot. I’m questioning if the end result is something you would want to spend that kind of money on.

“To really do a swimming pool right, you don’t have to create a Dorney Park Wildwater Kingdom. But you can create a public pool with some interactive water features, zero depth areas, a few slides and things to keep children’s interest – and still have a very nice aquatic facility for people who want to swim laps.

“A pool with some nice amenities for young families is not cheap. They start at $1.25 million to $1.5 million and can easily go to $3 million to $4 million, depending on how elaborate you get – how many bells and whistles you want.”

Mikowychok, who started working for the city April 15, is optimistic Allentown eventually will get new swimming pools for its children. “Complete failure to act, to quote ‘Apollo 13,’ is not an option.”

How many pools for Allentown?

Mikowychok explained the National Recreation and Park Association’s standard is a city should have one pool for every 25,000 residents. Allentown’s growing population is approaching 120,000. “Using that standard, theoretically Allentown should have, what, five pools? But we’ve got two spray parks. So the question is: Do we need five pools and two spray parks? It’s too early for me to say.”

He added: “Having four pools and two spray pools is pretty darn good.” He said spray parks are free, fun for kids and much less expensive to operate than swimming pools. They don’t require pool managers, lifeguards or cashiers.

But City Council member Peter Schweyer said one big disadvantage of spray parks is “kids don’t learn how to swim there.”

Despite City Council’s May 2012 resolution, Mikowychok said: “You can’t have a swimming pool in every neighborhood. That’s just unrealistic. And it would be nice if everyone could walk to a pool, but I’m not sure that’s realistic today.”

Fountain Pool

Schweyer said restoring Fountain Park’s pool “is hugely important” because it would serve all of center city.

Despite free admission, attendance was low at Fountain before it closed, according to city officials, and vandals too often forced the pool to close by smashing glass bottles into it.

Mikowychok noted there have been discussions about the site of Fountain Park pool becoming a parking lot for all the athletic activity going on in that park, so people would not have to park on MLK Drive and 10th Street. That lot also would serve a future trail planned along nearby Little Lehigh Creek.

If the administration made a decision to pave over the Fountain Park pool, no action could be taken until City Council would hold at least three public hearings. According to the resolution it passed in May 2012, those hearings would be to discuss any future plan “relating to closing or relocating any aquatic facilities, prior to any action.”

Such hearings have never been held, because no plan for the future of the city’s pools has been proposed since the resolution was passed a year ago.

It was passed in response to an evaluation of the city’s pools by consultants that cost Allentown $80,000. That study’s recommendations, which many council members did not like, included permanently closing the Fountain Park pool and turning the Irving Street pool – the only pool in east Allentown -- into a spray park. At the time, Schweyer led the argument that Allentown needed more pools, not fewer pools.

That controversial “Swimming Towards the Future” report also recommended major overhauls costing about $2.5 million at both Mack and Jordan Park pools and spending up to $4.6 million to rebuild the Cedar Beach pool.

Mikowychok believes attempting to turn Cedar Beach into a destination pool, as that study recommended, would have put it in competition with Dorney’s nearby Wildwater Kingdom. He said he would rather see taxpayers’ money used to construct other quality pools.

The “Swimming Towards the Future” study reported the city’s aging pools need repairs totaling at least $4.5 million. And it warned that estimate is only “30 percent of the cost to completely rebuild each facility as new.”

Aging pools

Mikowychok said the typical life expectancy of a city pool is 25-30 years

Allentown’s newest pool, Mack on the South Side, is 51 years old. Irving Street pool is 74 years old. The Cedar and Jordan pools are 62 years old and the closed Fountain pool is 58 years old.

Mikowychok said “30 years is about the most you can hope for” because of the corrosive effects of chlorinated water on drains and plumbing.

“Can they last longer than that? Yes. And we don’t have indications of any serious water leaks. It’s probably safe to say the pools are holding up, even though they are past what their typical life span is.”

While the other city pools had their filtration systems upgraded over the years, Mikowychok he said the filtration system at Mack pool dates back to 1962, the year that pool opened.

New pools not top pool priority

Mikowychok said the top priority for Allentown’s pools is to upgrade the filtration system at Mack, because that is the heart of what keeps a pool open. “If you don’t have clean water, you cannot open a pool.”

Mack actually has three swimming pools. He said a rough estimate of the cost to replace that filtration system – “all the fixtures that pump, treat and disinfect the water” --would be more than $30,000.

“We think that system will make it through the summer, but it’s got to be done soon.”

Mikowychok said the $220 million lease of the city’s water and sewer systems will mean adjustments to the city budget, which he hopes will result in capital allocations for 2014 that at least include funds to redo Mack’s filtration system and possibly design new pools.

But he added: “I don’t envision us constructing a new pool in 2014. That would be unrealistic. You have to design it first.”

Handicapped accessibility

Not only are Allentown’s last four pools wearing out, but they don’t meet federal requirements for handicapped accessibility.

“The city knows it needs to make improvements to be in full compliance,” said Mikowychok. “The city is working to get into compliance.

“We spent just under $28,000 this year to put in five lifts at four pools, so we have at least one at every major pool. We had to put two in at Mack, which are in two separate pools. The ultimate goal is to have two lifts at every facility.”

He said the lifts are hydraulically operated seats that lower users into the water by pushing a button. “They’re completely independent. They don’t have to hail a lifeguard and wait five minutes if they want to get out of the pool.”

He said the city needs five or six more lifts for its pools, but will not get them this year.

He hopes officials who enforce the Americans With Disabilities Act “recognize the city is taking affirmative action to make its facilities compliant. Are we there yet? No. Will we be there in a year? Probably not, because there are many ADA issues with our bathhouse buildings, including restrooms, and main entrances. We have a way to go. But we will get to them.”

He said the pools have steel ramps, but they are not ADA complaint because their slopes are too steep for wheelchairs. He said the new lifts take up much less space than ramps in the pools.

Mikowychok said the city has not been fined for not being fully complaint with ADA requirements, adding it is a pipe dream for anyone to assume any municipality can afford to immediately meet all those federal mandates. “Whether we’ll be in compliance in two years or five, I honestly can’t say.”

On Wednesday night, Allentown managing director Francis Dougherty told City Council that the city has started its compliance with ADA regulations with the five lifts “and we will continue to make strides within budgetary limits to further this compliance.”

Pools open

The Cedar, Jordan and Irving swimming pools are opening for the season this weekend and Mack will open June 15.

Mikowychok said Mack is opening a week later because repairs had to be made to a leaking roof over the pool’s filter room, which included replacing rotting wood rafters. By the middle of this week those repairs were 98 percent complete, he said.

Allentown’s two free spray parks at Bucky Boyle Park and 5th and Allen Street Park opened June 1.

Mikowychok said water slides have replaced diving boards at most if not all the city’s pools, “so they’re better than the spartan pools of the ’50s and ’60s – but not by a tremendous amount.”

City Council

City Council President Julio Guridy said council should wait until Mikowychok is ready to share his ideas about Allentown’s pools before making any decisions. But he added the new parks director first has to be given enough time to develop those ideas.

Schweyer explained one reason no progress has been made on swimming pools in the last year is because it took the city nearly a year to hire a new parks and recreation director. He also noted council member Cynthia Mota, who chairs council’s parks & recreation committee, recently returned after being ill outside the country for nearly two months.

City Council also has been pre-occupied with the controversial water and sewer lease for the last several months.

Schweyer said the city’s bond rating is increasing, which will allow it to refinance debt, which should generate “more cash in the bank.” He said that will generate a conversation about funding priorities and he expects pools to be among them.

Schweyer said he is fully committed to find funding for the city’s pools, but warned the entire park system has huge capital needs, including deferred maintenance. “Our pools are not our only area of concern.”