Worthington's only outdoor aquatics center needs saving and it will require a community effort to keep the facility afloat, according to its owner.
Worthington Pools at 400 W. Dublin-Granville Road has the only outdoor pools in the city limits, and it also serves portions of Columbus and other nearby communities. But at 64 years old, the facility – which includes three outdoor pools and an indoor pool – is beginning to show its age.
In April 2016, Swiminc Inc. – Worthington Pools' private nonprofit owner and operator – announced it had secured $1 million in state funding that was meant to go toward a $4.6 million renovation project.
The project included 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. Deteriorating pool structures and facilities like bathrooms and snack bars would be renovated, and other amenities would be added along the way.
But in the 18 months that have followed that announcement, Swiminc has faced "a much harder, longer process than we suspected," which included leadership turnover and a shuffling of the board of directors, according to board president Rob Schmidt.
Swiminc risks losing those state funds due to inaction, and it will need help to raise the rest of the money to complete the project, Schmidt said. Without that, the future is uncertain.
Worthington Pools is a rare case in central Ohio.
Of the 16 central Ohio cities that have boundaries at least partially within Franklin County, Worthington is one four without a municipally operated outdoor pool; the others are New Albany, Reynoldsburg and Whitehall.
New Albany residents use the pools operated by Plain Township, which is in the city limits; Reynoldsburg's private outdoor pool closed in 2015; and Whitehall does not have aquatic options, other than a recently installed "splash pad."
Worthington Pools was created in 1954 as a nonprofit organization that has received funding from both the city of Worthington and Worthington Schools. It is on the grounds of Thomas Worthington High School.
Swiminc charges Worthington Schools $100,000 a year for use by the district's swimming and water-polo teams, and the organization was paying back a $600,000 loan from the city in 1996 until the remaining $105,000 was forgiven in 2016.
Without it, both the schools and the city would need to find other facilities to meet their needs.
"I think our community would expect to have an outdoor aquatic facility as part of the amenities in the community," City Manager Matt Greeson.
For the school district, the $100,000 price for its rental would be nothing compared to running its own pool, Schmidt said.
"Could they rent another pool for $100,000 a year? Maybe," he said. "But they can't run a pool for $100,000 a year. They can't maintain a pool for $100,000 a year."
Schmidt and leaders from city and district said their relationship has been a good one, but it can – and often does – cause confusion during conversations about funding, Schmidt said.
"I think three out of four members couldn't tell you we're a nonprofit. Which is great," he joked, "because then they send complaints to the city and not to us."
But without a consistent source of public money, the pool has suffered as its guests have dwindled.
According to figures provided by Schmidt, pool memberships have stayed reasonably consistent, but the pools are being used by fewer guests than ever.
In 2012, Worthington Pools had 20,307 guests, with 1,394 memberships sold. By 2017, that total was 9,502, with 1,467 memberships sold.
Schmidt said he and Swiminc leaders aren't sure why attendance is diving, though he has a theory.
"The world we live in is different now," he said. "There's less of a focus on a 'go-to-the-pool-every-day' mentality. There's just less opportunity for that focus.
"We're also a lot older."
The age of Worthington Pools' facilities is perhaps its biggest challenge, Schmidt said. The infrastructure creates increased costs as it ages, he said, and keeping up with those costs has resulted in very little money to do anything but maintain the facilities.
According to Swiminc data, the organization made a net revenue of less than $320,000 from October 2012 to September 2017; it had just $362,366 on hand at the end of 2017.
"The management team is left with a list of things we'd like to do and a list of things we actually have to do," Schmidt said.
Without large-scale renovations, the pools themselves will hit their "fail points" and become either unusable or extremely difficult and costly to fix, Schmidt said.
Swiminc "doesn't know for sure" what those points are, he said, but they aren't far away.
If Worthington Pools can get back on its feet, it could be because of a community effort.
The $1 million in state funding, which was secured with the help of state Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington), a former Worthington City Council member, could be worthless without the remaining $3.6 million, which would need to come from a variety of sources, Schmidt said.
Swiminc has planned a fundraising campaign for years, Schmidt said, but the start of that campaign has been derailed because of leadership changes, including an influx of new board members and the loss of general manager Phil Sobers to a U.S. Air Force deployment for several months.
In 2016, Schmidt and Swiminc floated the idea of asking for a $1 million contribution each from Worthington Schools and the city, but the organization has made no formal request to either entity and neither the schools nor the city have held official discussions about the funding.
That inaction prompted Duffey, who is unable to run for re-election in 2018 to the Ohio House of Representatives because of term limits, to write a letter to the city and schools last month urging them to bring the conversation back to the forefront.
Duffey said he was concerned the funding would be pulled from the state budget if progress isn't made on the renovation project.
"I'm term-limited, so I cannot defend that money indefinitely," he said.
City and school district leaders have expressed a willingness to have a conversation about how to proceed.
"We're certainly open to having a conversation with the pool and the city," Superintendent Trent Bowers said. "We have a mutual interest. We believe the pool and natatorium and outdoor pool is ... (an) asset that's important to the community, so we would want to be part of those conversations.
"We certainly value the programs that we've been able to offer, both water polo and swimming, because of the relationship with the natatorium. I think it's really critical that (the relationship) continues, because the natatorium has been there as long as it has and there's nothing close to Worthington that could fill that need."
Greeson said he believed Worthington City Council and his fellow city leaders were "very open" to the conversation.
"I think we have an interest in Swiminc being successful, like we have an interest in the libraries being successful or the schools or the (Worthington Youth Boosters)," he said. "We have a number of strong not-for-profits in this community that provide vital services, and we see them as partners. We have an interest in their success."
But having a conversation and spending $1 million in taxpayer money are two very different concepts, and both Bowers and Greeson said the latter is much more complicated than the former.
"I've heard that number thrown about, but we've never actually been asked for any amount of money," Bowers said. "So I don't know what that means. Is it a one-time ask? Is it structure over a period of time? That's why at some point, when Swiminc is ready to have those conversations, we'd certainly be willing to listen."
For Bowers and the district, the value of the pool has to be weighed with the district's upcoming requests for a bond issue and an operating levy in order to cope with increasing enrollment. With that in mind, he said, every financial decision comes under heavy scrutiny.
"In a public school district, there's always a prioritization of needs," he said. "Our first responsibility is to make sure our schools are adequate for students, have capacity they need and that they're warm safe and dry.
"We've just gone through an 18-month facilities task force process to try to figure out how we deal with our aging buildings. ... So we're going to look to fund that over the next 15 years. It's just a question of where those resources (for the pool) come from. The pie is only so big."
Greeson and the city approach the potential funding request from a similar perspective. The city – like most in Ohio – must manage dwindling amounts of state funds.
"We try to meet the needs of the community in a financially responsible way," he said. "The challenge is always that we have a number of projects and programs where there are opportunities to impact our quality of life. And then we have, in this day and age, a lot of what I would call 'have-to-be-dones,' things like sewers and water lines and things like that.
"So the question always is, of the opportunities to significantly benefit or enhance the quality of life, which ones are most important?"
Despite the uphill battle Swiminc might face, Schmidt said, he is optimistic.
He said he senses a "willingness to engage in the conversation" from parties around Worthington and he thinks Duffey's efforts are "forcing all of us to have a conversation that we need to have."
"We're still moving," he said. "I'm optimistic that we can still get something done. It's just not moving on the timeline that I think everybody was anticipating when Mike and the rest of our representatives and senators got us the capital funding two years ago."
Though Schmidt will need the help of the city and school district at some point, he said, he does not blame them. He said he realizes Swiminc's lack of preparedness is a major contributor to the slow movement, along with some bad luck.
"I don't blame the conversation for stalling," Schmidt said. "It's certainly something Swiminc could have been pushing harder on if we could have been in the position to do it."
Duffey said he is worried "in the next decade the entire facility could be forced to close," and Swiminc leaders can already see the potential end of the line.
"We're past our useful life, whatever that term means," Schmidt said. "So I think it's time for the investment. Are we going to have some sort of major facility failure that prevents us from opening this summer? I hope not. But we're not 10 years away from problems ... we're five years away."
Schmidt offered a description for the outdoor pool's restrooms that he said sums up the entire facility.
"It's functional; it works," he said. "But it's also fading."
THROUGH THE YEARS
1953: Swiminc Inc. is incorporated.
1954: Worthington Pools facility opens.
1957: Worthington Schools begins ownership of the property.
1970: Annual “Wet ’n Wild” family night is created.
1996: City of Worthington loans Swiminc $600,000.
2000: Swiminc begins heating all three outdoor pools.
2005: Swiminc installs UV-light sanitation for indoor pool.
2007: Community picnic shelter is installed.
2010: The lagoon and splash-pad amenities are added outdoors.
2016: State Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington) secures $1 million in state funding for potential renovation project.
2016: City forgives remaining $105,000 on loan.
2017: Duffey writes letter urging city, district to discuss pool-funding options to start project.