ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster said he's planning to close four of nine city pools in an effort to save roughly $1.5 million, the annual cost to run them.
Foster said he doesn't know which ones will be closed yet, but he will propose the idea to the City Council next week as a necessary step in balancing next year's budget, which has a projected $12 million shortfall. Of the five pools that remain open, four will be turned into pay-to-play water parks that will include features intended to draw larger crowds willing to pay admission.
He's modeling the idea, which still needs approval from the City Council and wouldn't go into effect until next year, on the Highland Aquatic Center in Largo. Foster said residents would be charged about $8 to use the four renovated pools for two hours. Each new "aquatic center" would have numerous pools that include slides resembling a mini-Adventure Island. Even though the pools would cost money to construct, Foster said he believes they would pay for themselves with the revenue they'd bring in.
City pools now charge $2.50 for children between 3 and 12. For teens 13 and up, the fee is $3.
"We'd still use the rectangular pools for laps and meets," Foster said. "We would just add some features that would bring in more people."
Only one pool — North Shore Aquatic Complex at 901 N. Shore Drive NE — wouldn't be affected, he said, because it's already an elaborate complex with a 50-meter pool with diving board, 25-yard training pool and a play pool with giant flume slide.
The other eight pools, however, are what Foster calls "rectangular pools." He said these pools provide "nothing to do but swim." In an age where pools are less of a novelty — like when Foster was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s — flagging attendance hasn't brought in enough to justify their expense, he said.
"Our numbers are down," Foster said. "I want to keep these quality of life features that people actually use and these neighborhood pools aren't getting the best use."
Over the coming months, Foster plans to study pool usage rates. He wants to make sure a pool is within two miles or less of every city resident and no two pools are too close to each other, duplicating services.
The closed pools will be filled in and turned into recreation centers and parks, Foster said.
He's already met individually with each council member to discuss the concept. Bill Dudley said he likes the idea, but wants more information.
"It may attract kids who didn't come before," Dudley said of the larger pools. The pools that get closed may get recreation centers, which might appease everyone. I'll worry about it when we get more information and it's more concrete."
Until those details are decided, parents like William Goodman will fret about having their neighborhood pool on the chopping block.
Goodman lives two blocks away from Shore Acres Pool. His 7-year-old son, Adam, swims at the pool every day during the two months it's open, June and July. He said closing the pool at Shore Acres, which has an attached recreation center, would be a "disaster" that would erode his family's quality of life.
Goodman has a pool at his house, but he said that doesn't replace the feel of community his son gets when he comes to play with his friends at the larger Shore Acres Pool. A first grader at Shore Acres Elementary, Adam is the best swimmer in his class, Goodman said.
"I know so many parents who bring their kids here to swim, I'm not sure what they would do," he said. "If the people in this neighborhood who use the pool voted for Foster, and he closes the pool, they won't vote for him again. It's that important to us."
But would Goodman support a higher fee if the pool was expanded?
"I'd pay a higher fee so that the pool can stay here," Goodman said. "There's value in that."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or firstname.lastname@example.org