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Palm Coast Sunday, Sep. 20, 2015 3 years ago

Hundreds turn out to Belle Terre Swim and Racquet fundraiser in attempt to keep the facility open

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The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Committee will submit a bid to the School Board to run the facility.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

There were raffles and duck diving games at the Belle Terre pool Sunday, Sept. 20, as a crowd of hundreds gathered around the pool under a bright afternoon sun, trying to raise money to keep the facility from closing to the public.

Members of the Synchro Belles, a local youth synchronized swimming team, put on a show as attendees munched on food donated by local restaurants. The event was a final push by the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Committee — a group of members trying to keep the pool open — to raise enough money to submit a viable proposal to the School Board to take over the facility, which has been losing money each year in the school district's hands. That bid will be submitted tomorrow, Advisory Committee President Doug Courtney said at the event.

"If you want to see a community effort: This is a community effort," Courtney said, gesturing to the crowd gathered around the pool. "I think this is a pretty good indicator of how the community wants this to stay open."

The Advisory Committee has raised about $25,000 to respond to the School Board's request for proposal, Courtney said. That's about half of the committee's original goal of $50,000, he said, but still a significant amount raised through word of mouth in only a month.

"If you want to see a community effort: This is a community effort. I think this is a pretty good indicator of how the community wants this to stay open." — Doug Courtney, Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Committeee president

 

The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Committee incorporated on Aug. 24 and has filed for 501c3 nonprofit status, Courtney said, but for now, all effort is focused on getting the School Board bid. 

"We either get it, or we don't," he said. But he was hopeful. "We've got a lot of support from the county, a lot of support from the city," he said. 

'TOO BEAUTIFUL TO LET IT DIE'

Pool and Racquet Club members said the facility is something special in the community — especially for the seniors who swim at the pool for health reasons, or attend exercise classes — and worth fighting to save.

"The members  ...  are so excited about the prospect of this being theirs, of saving this place," said Ronee King, a volunteer with the Advisory Committee's fundraising effort. "It's too beautiful, too historic, to just let it die. My kids grew up in this pool, and now their kids are growing up in this pool. I have a granddaughter now, so I want to see her be able to come here and take swimming lessons."

The pool also provides a special place for both the elderly people who use it to stay healthy and for children who learn to swim in its kiddie pool, she said. "Elderly people, they don't want to go to a fancy-shmantsy gym, they want a place that takes care of them. ... We've got (members) from tiny children, to the guys who just strolled in on walkers," she said, pointing to a line of people entering the pool area.

MONEY PIT?

But in the school district's hands, the pool has leaked money each year, while education budget cuts from the state have forced the School Board to shut down or scale back other programs — including adult education programs, and programs for disabled adults — that don't serve K-12 schoolchildren.

The Belle Terre facility made $138,000 in revenue last year, but required $352,000 in operating costs that can't be paid for with much of the district's money, which is set aside by law for programs that serve children. 

An attempt by the School Board to negotiate an agreement with the YMCA to have the Y manage the facility faltered after the YMCA leadership said it would need $200,000 in donations to get the property through the first two years. 

County commissioners and Palm Coast City Council members have expressed concern about the facility's fate in public meetings, but have stopped short of intervening in any direct way: The facility doesn't belong to them, but to the School Board, which isn't planning to shut it down entirely. It has spoken, instead, about shutting it to the public and using it solely for school swim teams and the Synchro Belles, a restriction that might make the facility eligible for educational grants that aren't open to it when it's being used as a community pool.

So the city and the county, whose representatives have spoken in public meetings of placing the issue of the pool on the agenda for a joint meeting, have held off on doing so. Both County Administrator Craig Coffey and Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon have warned their respective boards about the impropriety of discussing the fate of a School Board property — which the School Board would like to continue using for its own programs — at a meeting the School Board wouldn't even be present at. 

"If that's what it takes — a little advertising, a little organization — I think they could make a go of it. ... I would bet money there are people that've lived here 15 years that don't even know it's here." —Jon Netts, Palm Coast mayor

City Manager Jim Landon has also pointed out that Palm Coast maintains its own pool, the Frieda Zamba, less than a mile away, and that if the School Board closes the Belle Terre pool to the public, the city could add programs at the Frieda Zamba pool to accommodate people pushed out of the Belle Terre facility.

'AN AMAZING TURNOUT'

Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts, sitting at a poolside table under a picnic umbrella at the Sept. 20 fundraiser, said he wished the discussion about the facility's financial condition had started earlier.

"It's a shame from the citizens' perspective that this conversation didn't start a year ago," he said. "But what has happened in such a short amount of time is remarkable." Netts said the city's parks and recreation department may be able to help out with advertising for the facility, if that would keep it viable. "If that's what it takes — a little advertising, a little organization —I think they could make a go of it," he said. "I would bet money there are people that've lived here 15 years that don't even know it's here."

County Commissioners Nate McLaughlin and George Hanns also attended the fundraiser, and were impressed by its scale: Not only was the turnout in the hundreds, but local restaurants — including the Olive Garden, Chicken Pantry, Woody's Bar-B-Q, Carmella's Pizza and Pasta and the Funky Pelican — had donated food, and Palm Coast Ford and Tom Gibbs Chevrolet had both offered free oil changes for the event's raffle.

"The turnout here — It shows that the community is serious about this venue. Just an amazing turnout," McLaughlin said. The parking lot was so packed when he arrived, McLaughlin said, that he had to park on the grass alongside the facility's entrance road. "This has been kind of an anonymous jewel in our community," he said. "It's been used for years. It's been a silent crowd; they come, they use it, they take care of it. It's a wonderful asset."

Hanns said that of the facilities in the area, the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club is "one of the nicest."

"This is my 27th year here, and it's always been such an amenity to have a pool that is heated in the middle of a neighborhood," he said. "The volunteers that are working on this project are so inspirational. And the people are so nice and cordial, friendly. So hopefully  this is going to turn into a fantastic thing for the community and the people that use this facility."

The School Board will begin accepting bids to manage the facility Sept. 21, and will discuss the proposals at a future public meeting.

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