Aquatic center should pay own way, rep says

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The Hillsboro City Council was told at its Tuesday meeting that a town the size of Hillsboro can operate a modern family aquatic center without it being an annual drain on taxpayer dollars-but only if the city radically changes its current management approach.

Referring to a feasibility report she did for the city, Nancy Ronto of Burbach Aquatics said, “This is reality, to show you there is potential to not only break even, but to actually run a profitable operation within the city.”

Ronto was at the meeting to address the conclusions of the study and answer questions the council might have as it moves closer to a putting a proposal to build a new aquatic center to a public vote.

At a previous meeting, the council agreed to let voters decide if they thought the city could afford to build a new aquatic center. To fund the project, estimated by Ronto to cost around $2.5 million, the council will ask for a half-cent increase in the local sales tax.

Once the new facility is built, it is possible to maintain its operation without additional tax subsidy if the city will change its management philosophy.

“Everything has to be done as though you are running a business,” said Ronto, who ran a profitable aquatic center before joining Burbach.

“This is no longer a monkey that you can leave on the city’s back,” she said about subsidized swimming pools. “Does the city have a responsibility to offer services? Yes. Does it have the responsibility to give them away? No.”

Currently, the city budgets $37,000 each year toward the maintenance and support of the 50-year-old pool in Memorial Park. About $22,000 comes back to the city as revenue.

Ronto said the first thing a new facility would do is eliminate most of the repair and maintenance expenses.

“Older pools tend to suck money out of your hand because they’re not energy efficient, they’re working with older, broken parts, and its hard to get replacement parts for what’s broken,” she said.

Beyond that, she said, a new pool will attract a broader clientele.

“You’re not just going to be seeing the 10-year-old boy with the blue lips at your facility,” she said. “That’s traditionally who will be attracted to a traditional, box-type pool. A newer facility attracts a broader age spectrum.”

But the key to operating in the black will be managing the facility as a business rather than a tax-supported baby-sitting service, she said.

Practically speaking, what will that mean?

Ronto offered several revenue-generating examples:

n staying open for longer hours;

n managing staff more efficiently;

n selling a wider range of concessions prepared on site as well as swim-related products such as sun-block and visors;

n programming special events to draw people from various ages;

n adjusting admission prices from the current $1.50 to between $2 and $3 per child and $4 per adult;

n generally, creating a family-friendly environment that will attract more people who will stay at the facility longer.

But Ronto said a business approach also means eliminating current practices such as allowing people who use the pool-including for swim meets and parties-to bring in their own concessions, as well as offering reduced admission rates for non-profit groups.

Mayor Delores Dalke said changing the mindset of the public on some of those issues could be a challenge.

Ronto replied: “If your residents want their public facilities to run at a deficit, and they’re willing to pay higher taxes to cover it, so be it. But if they aren’t, then these things have to start running at least at zero-base. It’s pay as you play.”

Councilor Len Coryea said one of the selling points mentioned in previous discussions was that a new pool could generate significant income from patrons from outside of Hillsboro. But with new pools in cities within driving distance, he asked if that was a reasonable expectation.

Ronto said the feasibility study was done to determine if the city could sustain a facility intended for families in Hillsboro alone.

“There’s a very small percentage (of potential patrons) that gets tacked on out of the Hillsboro city limits,” she said.

“We don’t encourage you to compete against (aquatic centers in other cities),” she said. “What we encourage you to do is to keep your people and their wallets in your town and don’t let your wallets go to somebody else’s town.

“(A new facility) doesn’t have to be big and fabulous, it just has to be friendly. It has to be a family environment where people want to hang out at together.”

Ultimately, Ronto said, a new aquatic center becomes economically attractive when citizens realize the long-term impact it can have on their community.

“We have to look at a family aquatic center as an entity in the community that has a huge amount of value-it has a day-to-day value for the people who are using it, and it also has a quality-of-life value,” she said.

“As you begin to add items like this to your community, quality of life improves and other industries and businesses will come. It really is the build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy.”

Ronto said studies show families move to a community for four reasons: jobs, education, shopping and recreation.

“Without any one of those four cards, the quality of life takes a dip down,” she said. “Increase any one of those and the quality of life takes a step up.”

In the end, the council agreed to move forward with process, which means determining real costs by finalizing the design of an aquatic center and the amenities it will contain.

Members will accomplish that task in a work session on a date to be determined. If all goes according to plan, a proposal will be presented to voters in time to allow for the completion of the project by the start of the 2006 swim season-if the measure passes.

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