A proposal to close the last two county-run swimming pools has spurred Hudson and Land O'Lakes residents to try to save their summertime hangouts.
Dedicated swimmers have offered several suggestions, including having swimmers pay higher fees and hosting fundraisers, to keep the pools open.
"For a lot of the community, this is their form of recreation," said Norbert "Sparky" Judge, a 52-year-old former construction worker who was one of a couple of dozen swimmers escaping the 90-degree heat Tuesday at Veterans Memorial Park. "Where else can the kids hang out and not get in trouble?"
But few supporters of the Veterans pool have reached out to county parks director Rick Buckman, who suggested closing the pools during a budget workshop last week. The outlook is sunnier for the pool at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex, which is used by two high schools and the Land O'Lakes Lightning club team.
Buckman plans to meet Thursday with Lightning president Brett Ewald and school district athletic director Phil Bell to discuss alternatives.
The two pools cost the county $328,000 a year to operate but bring in only $39,000 in attendance fees. Buckman said closing the pools would prevent cuts to the rest of the park system. Daily passes are $3 for adults and $2 for children. Season passes vary in price; a child's pass costs $50, for instance, while a family of four pays $100.
"I don't blame the county," Ewald said. "The numbers really don't work. We've just got to find a way to make it work."
The talks are preliminary, but the team could take over operations of the pool and work out some sort of an agreement with Land O'Lakes and Sunlake high schools. Ewald says saving the pool for the high school swim teams is just as important to him because his swimmers move to those programs when they leave his team.
Judge, 52, takes his three children to the pool nearly every day each summer to escape boredom and the heat. His daughter Natasha hosts her birthday party at the pool each August, complete with brownies, soda and pizza.
"I refuse to do it over on the sandy beach," said Natasha, 14, adding that swimming in a pool rather than at the beach is a surefire way to keep seaweed out of your swimsuit.
Sharon Crowder, a retired nurse from Hudson, was hanging out in the "grandma corner," watching her two grandchildren splash in the pool. She said she would be willing to pay a few extra bucks in fees, and she urged officials to find a creative way to keep the pool open.
"You don't just take away services that are vital to the public," said Crowder, 64. "You know, not everybody can afford to put a pool in their back yard."
Besides the possible partnership with the club team, Buckman has said he is open to teaming up with a nonprofit such as the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club. Nonprofits are often more flexible than the county in raising money, he said, and they might be a better fit to operate the pools.
This isn't the first time the county has talked about closing a pool and tried to find a suitor to keep it going. After last year's budget cuts, officials inked a contract with the nonprofit Zephyrhills Police Athletic League to run the Hercules Aquatic Center. But unpaid bills led the county to cancel the contract in January, and the pool is closed this summer.
Hercules is now owned by the school district, but officials have no immediate plans for the pool. The Zephyrhills High swim team trains at a YMCA pool.
Buckman acknowledged the failure at Hercules, but he is more optimistic about the Land O'Lakes pool because of the active club team and the relatively high number of young families in the area.
"I think we might be able to pull something off," he said.
Florence Jensen, a retired school district secretary, said she swims almost every afternoon during the adult swim program at the Land O'Lakes pool and would be "truly disappointed" if it closed.
"How do you do that to the taxpayers?" she asked. "That was a special referendum that built those parks and libraries."
Jensen said she wouldn't mind paying a higher gate fee. To pump up attendance, she said, the pool should add more evening hours to allow people to take a dip after work.
"I pretty much will do anything to keep that place open," she said.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.