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City's aging pools struggling to stay afloat

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Twelve year-old Jubilee Dueck Thiessen started to do her backstroke underwater after she realized the water splashing her in her face wasn't from the pool -- it was from the roof.

The Sherbrook Shark swimmer first noticed the leak above one of Sherbrook Pool's lanes more than two years ago, saying you could see the "icky" drops fall into the tank every time it rained or the snow started to melt.

It's one of many signs the pool was in need of repair. The city closed the 1930s-era facility in November after inspectors discovered 10 pillars supporting the roof had eroded. Officials are still waiting an estimate for how much it will cost to fix the problem.

"It definitely hasn't been maintained and this is a problem decades in the making," said Jubilee's mom Karla Dueck Thiessen, Sherbrook Shark Swim Club President.

Recreation advocates say the recent shutdown of Sherbrook underscores the need for a long-term strategy to maintain Winnipeg's 13 indoor pools. Several city pools -- including Pan Am -- were built in the 1960s and are starting to show signs of wear-and-tear.

Yet as the facilities get older, Winnipeg is gradually spending less on maintaining them. This year, the city plans to spend $10.4 million on its indoor aquatic facilities, $2.2 million of which will be put towards repairs at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex, Margaret Grant Pool and Pan Am Pool. That's nearly $5 million less than in 2010 when Winnipeg's operating budget devoted $14.8 million towards staffing, maintenance and operations at city pools.

Local recreation groups worry more facilities will start to deteriorate in the coming years unless the city devotes more money to upgrade them.

"People who are actually operating the facilities are being asked to do more with less," said Swim Manitoba executive director Darin Muma. "Right now we're OK, but I think we're getting closer and closer to a tipping point."

Nearly a decade ago, a controversial report recommended a massive overhaul of Winnipeg's recreational facilities and proposed the city close the Sherbrook, Margaret Grant and Eldon Ross pools.

The $500,000-study suggested some pools and community clubs be closed in favour of larger recreation complexes, as the cost of fixing some older indoor pools was nearly as much as replacing them. The report, completed in 2004, pegged the cost of preserving the Sherbrook Pool at its current state at about $4 million. Preserving Pan Am at that time, it estimated, would cost $20 million.

City council scrapped the report and its recommendations and went on to approve a $43-million plan to upgrade recreation and leisure facilities. A portion of the funding, $2.7 million, went towards the former Sargent Park Recreation Complex (now named after Cindy Klassen) to help with its expansion in the West End and $7 million went towards the North End Recreation & Leisure Facility. Other funds went towards existing community centres, an indoor soccer facility, spray parks and skateboard parks across the city.

-- -- --

Right now, indoor pools are in better shape than arenas and outdoor pools.

The city uses an index to estimate how much needs to be fixed in its recreational facilities. The overall facility condition index ranked Winnipeg's 13 indoor pools at a 0.17 in 2011 -- a figure that means they are generally in good condition.

A value of "0" indicates new, but that number increases as the facility's condition worsens. A value of "1.0" means a facility has reached a point where renovating a facility will cost as much as replacing it.

By comparison, outdoor pools have a facility condition index of 0.59 and arenas have an average rating of 0.33.

But these numbers don't tell the full story.

Facility-condition reports obtained by the Free Press reveal parts of the Sherbrook Pool have deteriorated to the point they have been deemed antiquated or beyond their "useful life." Documents from 2011 and 2012 show the pool's heating, cooling, electrical system and plumbing are considered "aged," and the facility's roof, exterior doors, floor and wall finishes are all past their lifespan.

This week, council's executive policy committee voted to allot $200,000 to help repair corrosion on the pillars supporting the pool's roof -- a sum many say will not be enough to fix the problem.

City of Winnipeg officials were unavailable for an interview and unable to provide further information on the current condition of the city's indoor pools.

Marianne Cerilli, board chair for the Friends of Sherbrook Pool, said she questions whether the pool's closure could have been avoided if proper maintenance was done. Sherbrook Pool, which was built in 1931, underwent renovations in the mid-1990s to repair the building's outer shell, install a new ventilation system, and refurbish the radiators.

Cerilli said the longevity of those repairs hinged on completing a second phase that focused on the lower level, main floor and mezzanine. The repairs were expected to be finished by 1998, but they were never done, she said.

"To have the older part of the city be neglected where recreation facilities are closed without a plan, is just unacceptable," Cerilli said.

-- -- --

The issue isn't isolated to Sherbrook Pool.

Earlier this week, former Olympians Rhiannon Leier Blacher and Michelle Lischinsky warned other city aquatic facilities could be at-risk of closure due to long-term neglect, saying many pools have problems with broken lane lines, "brown mouldy stuff" in the training tank, and showers, sinks and water fountains that don't work.

Tom Hainey, head coach of the Manta Swim Club, said it seems the city is spending just enough money to keep pools running, as opposed to offering better recreation programming to attract residents who may otherwise get memberships at private gyms or health clubs.

Most afternoons, Hainey said the Pan Am Pool is virtually empty, and doesn't generate the kind of money in fees it takes to run a facility with two 50-metre pools.

He suspects the pool is losing out on business for the amenities it doesn't have -- a nice weight room, hot tub, gym and cafeteria. Hainey said it's "shameful" that such a facility has no daytime programming, and hasn't been made more of a civic priority.

"We can see that the pools look rough," Hainey said. "But to be fair we do need to spend more money on these absolutely essential recreation facilities.

Swimming pools are a must."

-- -- --

Part of the problem is the city has no shortage of projects in need of extra cash.

Muma said pools are expensive, and in competition with everything from bumpy roads, community centres and arenas for limited infrastructure dollars. This year's operating budget said indoor pools will require a $109-million investment over the next decade, roughly a third of the estimated cost of all Winnipeg recreation, leisure, and library buildings in that time period.

Meanwhile, other cities in Alberta, B.C. and Quebec have invested in brand-new, top-notch swimming pools, which may make it harder for Winnipeg to attract high-level sport competitions in the future.

At the same time, the interest in swimming has grown by more than 10 per cent since last summer. Muma said swimming typically sees a boost in enrolment following the Olympics, and there are currently as many as 1,100 competitive swimmers in Winnipeg.

While Muma's not upset by the current state of the pools, he hopes there's a long-term plan for their future. Muma said Winnipeg needs a strategy to maintain and upgrade its indoor pools in the coming years so the city doesn't fall further behind the rest of the country.

"Our decision-makers have some really tough decisions ahead of them," Muma said. "We would certainly hate to see a pool close because there hasn't been enough money to do general (maintenance) to keep minor things from becoming major."

-- -- --

Experts say pools and recreation facilities should be heavily subsidized by governments and not expected to generate revenue.

Amanda Johnson, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba's faculty of kinesiology and recreation management, said research has shown access to community recreation has numerous social, physical and economic benefits. Living near an indoor pool or community centre increases property values, she said, and access to recreation helps promote better health.

Despite the well-documented benefits, Johnson said some cities -- including Toronto and Kitchener-Waterloo have started to off-load public pools to the private sector due to the high cost of maintaining and operating them. This, in turn, reduces access to recreation for low-income or marginalized groups.

"That affects access. Prices typically go up when a private company takes over," Johnson said.

Currently, 100 children and youth in the West End have no place to swim. Cerilli said the Friends of Sherbrook Pool charity can't afford the $5,000 it would cost to hire instructors and pay for lessons at Eldon Ross Pool while Sherbrook is closed.

Other swimmers -- such as Jubilee Dueck Thiessen -- are temporarily training at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex, where swimmers are bumping into each other in the crowded lanes.

"This is just going to happen again, the (Sherbrook) pool will be unexpectedly shut down and (the city will be) scrambling to meet the needs of the community," Karla Dueck Thiessen said. "There has to be a plan in place."


City of Winnipeg budget documents show spending on indoor pool facilities has dipped in recent years.

Here's a breakdown:

2013: $10.46 million

($11.1 if including salaries)

2012: $10.8 million

2011: $14.3 million

2010: $14.87 million

2009: $14.1 million

-- source: City of Winnipeg operating budgets

Winnipeg's 13 indoor pools and the year they were built:

Sherbrook Pool: 1931

St. James Civic: 1965

Pan Am: 1967

Transcona Centennial: 1967

North Centennial Recreation and Leisure Facility: 1969

Margaret Grant: 1971

St. James Assiniboia Centennial: 1971

Bonivital: 1974

Elmwood Kildonan: 1975

Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex(fFormerly the Sargent Park Recreation Complex): 1975

Seven Oaks: 1977

Bernie Wolfe: 1977

Eldon Ross: 1983

-- source: City of Winnipeg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2013 A6

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