The facility is set to close, with the School Board unable to afford maintenance and plans for a YMCA partnership floundering.
Dozens of people showed up at a County Commission meeting Monday, Aug. 17, pleading with the commission to save a facility that isn’t technically under its purview: The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, which is run by the School District and slated to close Sept. 7.
Commissioners agreed to hold a workshop about the subject.
“I’m a swimmer, and I swim distance early in the morning,” Wellington Drive resident Leon McLaurin said during the meeting’s public comment period. “This is a valuable resource that we have here in Flagler County, and I hate to see it go away. I am making the appeal to Flagler County to see if there’s any way possible to save a valuable resource.”
Another man, Parkview Drive resident George Howard, said the club is “an anchor for this particular neighborhood,” and for the county and Palm Coast. “I hate to see something like this facility go down the drain when maybe we could get some help,” he said.
Other residents who spoke during the public comment period said they’ve formed a resident group to explore options for keeping the facility open, but they want the help of the county, the city of Palm Coast, or both.
Of the more than a dozen people who spoke on the issue, just one — Jack Carall, a frequent commenter at city and county meetings — warned the county against taking on the pool issue.
If the county puts money into fixing it up now, Carroll said, “Well that’s OK, you fix it up. But then what happens the next year and then the year after that? They’re going to keep coming back to you to fix it, and every year it’s going to be a little more and a little more. ... It’s a white elephant. You’re going to buy it, and you’re going to get stuck with it, and once you’re stuck with it, that’s it, you’re never going to get rid of it. It’s like flypaper; you can’t throw it away. What I’m saying is, be careful what you do with our money.”
The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club was donated to the Flagler School District in 1996. It made $138,000 in revenue last year, but required $352,000 in operating costs. The School District can’t use k-12 education dollars for it, by state statute, because it’s not a k-12 school facility.
As things are, the district — which has already been forced to cut back other programs because of state budget cuts — can’t sustain it, and has planned to close the facility Sept. 7, when most of the current memberships expire.
Many pool-goers had placed their hopes in a proposed arrangement with between the School District and the YMCA that would have had the Y run the facility, but that idea has fallen flat: the Y would need $200,000 to get everything up and running, and that money would have to come from the community.
Meanwhile, club users told the County Commission, the Belle Terre facility’s pool gives area residents, including seniors who swim for health reasons, a place to go to swim and work out. The City of Palm Coast has its own pool — the Frieda Zamba Pool, on Parkview Drive — but it’s only open from late May to early September.
Palm Coast resident CarMichael McMillan said he’d used the club for years, and knew it was particularly valuable for local seniors. “They love this place,” he said at the meeting. “I can’t tell you how many seniors tell me, ‘This club has saved my life.’ … It is a health resource for our seniors, and young people … We’d like you to do something with the city and help us save our pool.”
McMillan suggested in a document emailed to the Palm Coast Observer that the facility could be kept open with the help of the county and the city, then marketed more aggressively to increase paying membership until it becomes self-sufficient. “We can’t allow the Belle Terre Swim Club to fall into the trap of other properties around the county that fall into disrepair and become an eyesore to the community,” McMillan wrote.
Commissioners weren’t unmoved. Commissioner Frank Meeker said he’d taught his kids to swim there. Commissioner Barbara Revels had used the facility, too.
“I raised my sons swimming on the swim team there as well, and it is a special thing for the community,” she said. “Certainly, this is a segment of the population that needs to have that, as well."
Revels proposed forming a committee to explore solutions, much as the county did with the once-ailing Carver Gym.
Commissioner Nate McLaughlin suggested taking a closer look at the facility’s shortfall. “I’d be interested in knowing what the shortfall is and what it’s going to take,” he said. “There has been a recognition, historically, that we need these kinds of facilities here in our community. I think it’s important that at this point we keep the doors open. I think Ms. Revels is correct; I think that we need a coalition of some sort.”
County Administrator Craig Coffey said the county administration met with staff from the cities of Palm Coast and Bunnell and with the School District about the facility last week. “We are looking into some information to try to come up with some ideas," he said, But, he said. “We need to understand the schools’ priorities, and what they want to do as well.”
Coffey said he did not think the problem “is as simple as throwing money at them to keep it open a month or two while they figure this out.”
Commissioner George Hanns lamented that such issues “always seems to end up in the county’s lap.” But, Hanns said, the county — which spent so much effort trying to save the Carver Gym for its young people — also shouldn’t forget its seniors. “I’m sure with our staff and the parties that are involved, that we will be able to come up with something," he said. "It's a beautiful facility that needs to be kept.”