ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster wants to delay a historical status designation for Jennie Hall Pool, the first and only pool built for African-Americans during the city's segregated past, because he's thinking about shutting it down.
Under a cost-saving plan, all or some of the city's eight neighborhood pools could be closed to make way for fewer, but larger, aquatic centers like North Shore, said Sherry McBee, the city's parks and recreation director. The plan is only a concept now, but over the next six months, Foster will present it to the City Council.
Shuttering Jennie Hall would be more difficult if it is named a historic local landmark. So Foster is asking the city's Community Preservation Commission on Friday to delay awarding the status for six months until his plan can be vetted publicly.
Foster's request has frustrated the groups pressing for the pool's preservation. Jennie Hall was built in 1954 at 2650 10th Ave. S in Wildwood Park with the help of its namesake benefactor, a white retiree from the Midwest. Hall donated $25,000 so African-American residents could have a place to swim. St. Petersburg Preservation, the Wildwood Heights Neighborhood Association and the Council of Neighborhood Associations are behind the preservation request.
"We thought this was going to be a feel good project that everyone would get behind," said Emily Kleine Elwyn, a preservation historian. "We're solidly disappointed by this."
If the seven-member commission approves Foster's request, Elwyn and the other applicants would have to persuade the City Council to overturn the decision. They already have traction with two of Foster's biggest council critics.
"Jennie Hall should get its historic designation," said Wengay Newton, who represents the district where the pool is located. "Pools are amenities for people to utilize on a hot summer day to cool down, and we have them in strategic locations throughout the city for a reason, so we can serve those areas. Why don't we just tear down the city's fire substations and build one giant fire station?"
"The mayor wants to do this to make the pools more efficient, but I'm not sure that's a good reason not to designate something historic," said Leslie Curran. "It's a little odd that we would delay doing something like this."
Few budget cuts put elected officials in the crosshairs quite like pools. Pasco considered closing the last two county-owned pools this year, but relented after a public backlash.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn changed his mind this year and agreed to make repairs to an empty pool in East Tampa after residents there complained they weren't being treated equitably.
This would be the second time Foster has tried to cut pool expenses.
Last year, Foster announced a plan to close four, and then two, city pools — Shore Acres and Jennie Hall — and open a larger aquatic center. After a public outcry, Foster backed away, but warned he'd reconsider if attendance sagged.
Foster is now speaking with neighborhood groups while remaining mum about it publicly. He didn't return phone calls Tuesday to discuss his plans.
"We'd like to float it out there first," McBee said. "A normal reaction is, 'Don't close my pool.' But if you explain it to residents long enough, they say, 'yeah, that does make sense.' "
The aquatic centers would be accessible to the handicapped, she said, and would have better attractions, such as water slides and spray guns.
"We can save money by cutting overhead," McBee said. "And people want more than just a square or a rectangular pool. With attendance going down, this is something we want to look at."
The city released attendance figures on Tuesday that showed a total drop of 16.3 percent at the city's nine public pools, including the larger North Shore, between this year and last. But that was after fees were increased this summer by a dollar to $3.50 for children.
The 2009 attendance figures released Tuesday didn't match the 2009 attendance figures the city provided last year. Tuesday's figures were 43 percent lower. City officials couldn't be reached to explain the discrepancy.
Times staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.