After more than 18 months of inaction, Worthington Pools officials are trying to get the ball rolling for a funding push to renovate the facility – before they potentially lose money already pledged.
In April 2016, the Worthington Pools facility, which is operated and owned privately by Swiminc Inc., secured $1 million in state funding, thanks in large part to state Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington), who worked to sell lawmakers on the necessity of the funding.
At the time, Rob Schmidt, the Swiminc board of directors president, said he hoped the contribution would kick off a campaign to raise a total of $4.6 million for the project – which would require financial input from the city of Worthington and Worthington Schools – that would bring Worthington Pools into the 21st century.
The main feature of the renovation plan would be to add an all-seasons roof over the north pool, which would allow one end to be open for the summer season but still be used during colder weather, organizers said. The project also would include a variety of renovations on the dilapidated pools, new restrooms and a new kitchen space to expand concession options.
But progress has stalled, and Schmidt said he doesn't blame the city or schools. Instead, he said, Swiminc has run into "a much harder, longer process than we suspected."
"From my perspective, Swiminc is working very hard internally to get itself prepared for the type of major fundraising efforts that we need to do, but it's a hard process," he said. "Over the last year or 18 months or so, among other things, we've lost both our general manager and assistant general manager ... and it's sort of put us behind in that regard."
A lack of dialogue with the city and schools also seems to be part of the issue.
After the city forgave $105,000 of an outstanding loan in mid-2016, the topic of contributing to the pool's survival has not been brought back up. Similarly, school district leaders – focused on a major year of funding requests – have not discussed financially backing the pools.
That inaction led Duffey to write a letter to the district and the city asking what could be done.
Duffey, a former Worthington City Council member who is unable to run for re-election in 2018 to the Ohio House of Representatives because of term limits, said he is concerned the state funding he helped secure would be appropriated elsewhere if Swiminc's plans don't begin to move forward.
"The project can't proceed without the remainder," he said.
Schmidt said he knows Swiminc's organizational struggles haven't helped.
But now, he said, he hopes the process of fundraising can happen in conjunction with contributions from the city and school district.
"It's supposed to happen hand in hand," he said. "I honestly don't think the community (by itself) can give us the type of funding on the timeline we need to do the work we need to do. We're going to need the city and school district to participate. I don't think we've ever run from the fact that we're going to need their support."
In an email, Worthington Superintendent Trent Bowers said the district had received the letter and was open to talks with Swiminc.
"We have a mutual interest in partnering with Swiminc and the city of Worthington to make certain the natatorium continues as a resource for Worthington students," he said. "As a school district, we are open to conversation about this issue and would seek to be a good partner in a long-term solution."
Worthington spokeswoman Anne Brown said city leaders have not received a funding request.
"The city has received no funding request from SwimInc but we do welcome the opportunity to discuss it when they are ready," she said.
In the meantime, Schmidt and Duffey said they know the pool doesn't have as much time as it did in 2016 and decisions will need to be made a bit quicker.
"Are we going to have some sort of major facility failure that prevents us from opening this summer? I hope not," Schmidt said. "But we're not 10 years away from problems. ... We're five years away."