August 2, 2014

Can Columbia afford to operate 56 public parks?

As Columbia prepares to build its third multi-million dollar park, questions arise about whether it can afford to manage what it has.

When Columbia spends $3.2 million to convert Greenview’s old and empty pool into a water park, it will be the third time in a decade the city has spent millions of dollars on a showcase pool park, for a total of $14 million.

Pumping that much into three showcase parks, each with a pool, has some wondering whether the city can afford to keep the rest of its parks – there are 56 in all – or to operate them well.

Consultants told the city last year it does not manage its current facilities effectively.

“The city of Columbia has more facilities than can be properly maintained with the current funding and staffing,” Genesis Consulting Group wrote in a master parks and recreation plan.

Still, City Council in June approved $1.7 million for upgrades at Southeast Park, Hyatt Park, and recreation facilities around Owens Field.

On top of that, council authorized $310,000 to redesign the fraying Finlay Park. Construction costs for Finlay, the city’s flagship downtown park, with its signature fountain and sweeping open fields, could reach as high as $10 million.

And council recently authorized $29 million for a minor league baseball stadium that will double as a year-round facility in the planned Bull Street development downtown.

Council hasn’t addressed the issue of closing parks – a political hot potato that no council member has been willing to tackle.

“Neighborhood ownership of parks appears to drive facilities without consideration of citywide needs,” the consultant’s report states.

Greenview’s water park is to be exactly that – a neighborhood park with a six-lane lap pool, a children’s pool of similar size and a tubular water slide. It is to serve that largely aging African-American neighborhood and the people who live within a five-mile radius, other consultants told council last month. They project deficits each year.

Those out-of-state consultants project the water park will attract about 25,100 visitors yearly. Annual operating costs will range from about $123,500 to $136,300 during the first five years, they estimate.

Council set aside $2 million in this year’s budget but has not decided where the $1.2 million balance will come from.

A unique drawing card?

Aside from the Bull Street stadium, Greenview is the single-biggest park expenditure council has approved so far for this fiscal year.

Parks officials and Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine say they hope the water park will draw people from beyond Greenview, located off Farrow Road in north Columbia.

“There really is nothing like it in the city,” Devine, a citywide representative, said last week. “If I want to take my newborn somewhere just to splash around, I have nowhere to take him. Nobody has kiddie pools anymore. I think the reality is it will be a regional park.”

Efforts Friday to reach Councilman Sam Davis, who represents Greenview on council, were unsuccessful.

Consultants from Columbia-based Genesis last year all but said the city should not enlarge parks – instead it should close some of its under-used ones. But the consultants did not suggest which parks to close, in part because the city does not have a reliable way of tracking park-by-park usage.

“The development of capital (construction) projects appears inconsistent with a programmed and global recreation plan,” the consultant’s report states.

Assistant city manager Allison Baker oversees the parks and recreation department. He said the Capital City needed another pool, just not an indoor one.

“I believe that one outdoor (city-owned) pool is not enough for Columbia, to serve a community of this size,” Baker said. “My philosophy has always been that no matter where we build it, we need for it to be first class so people are proud to use it. And that’s what we’ll have at Greenview.”

The parks master plan does not call for a significant upgrade in Greenview, which Baker calls “an oversight.”

Columbia’s other outdoor pool is at Maxcy Gregg Park near the USC campus. Council in 2012 spent about $2.3 million for park improvements that included $1.7 million on a rebuilt pool, Baker said. At the time, it was the most council had spent on a single pool.

Baker said he views Maxcy Gregg as more of a citywide pool because swim teams from across Columbia practice there and because it serves children from all over the community.

Overdue, but down-sized amenity

If Greenview’s water park opens as scheduled next July, it will replace a 45-year-old pool that leaked and had been repeatedly patched for at least 17 years, Baker said.

The city has a 99-year lease at $1 annually on the park, he said. Columbia leases it from the Richland County Recreation Commission.

The city closed the pool after Labor Day 2012 because it had become unsafe, Baker said. “We limped through that summer.”

Some Greenview residents want an indoor pool and recreation/wellness center. But others worry about too much traffic in the neighborhood, since an indoor pool is likely to attract large swim meets. Parks officials are concerned about the lack of parking for such meets.

Baker said the city cannot justify an indoor aquatics center in Greenview. “To build that kind of facility at one end of town doesn’t lend itself to citywide use,” he said.

Stanley McIntosh has been the coach of the Greenview Dolphins swim club for 36 years. He pushed hard for a facility similar to Drew Wellness Center’s collegiate competitive-size pool, opened in December 2005.

“They are designing what the people in Greenview wanted,” said McIntosh, who lived in Greenview for 31 year before moving to a smaller home across town. “They were not speaking for everybody.

“I’m happy that the children have an opportunity to swim in the Greenview community, because something is better than nothing,” he said.

The design that council is paying for adds a children’s pool as well as the enclosed water slide, plus other amenities.

Lonnie Simpson is a third-generation Greenview resident and was the chairman of a citizen steering committee that worked with city officials on plans for the park upgrade.

He supports a fuller-service recreation/wellness center with an indoor pool that could have become a magnet for new retail and restaurants in growth-starved north Columbia.

“Everything that’s come to Greenview was a smaller version of what others got,” Simpson said. “This is something we’ve been working on for 20 years.

“We’ll take that pool, but we’ll continue to push for that recreation center.”

Drew Park deficits

The city spent $8.2 million to build its only indoor pool and gym at Drew Park located off Harden Street near the Celia Saxon neighborhood.

It opened in December 2005 and runs annual deficits in the half-million-dollar range, according to figures from the parks department. Those overruns are the largest of any city recreation facility, parks director Jeff Caton has said.

Current figures were not available late last week. But numbers the department released in 2012 to The State newspaper showed yearly deficits of $632,000 in fiscal 2008; $509,000 in 2009; $600,000 in 2010 and $592,000 in 2013.

Devine had been so concerned about Drew’s cost overruns that she talked with the local YMCA about taking over the park’s operations. The plan did not get off the ground.

She said she remains worried about costs but continues to vote for expansions at city parks that, like Drew, morph from a simple park to a recreation center – what Baker calls “first-class” facilities.

Devine said she supports the expenditures because upgraded parks help with the quality of life in neighborhoods that surround them.

But making them financially self-sufficient is a difficult balancing act.

“If you charge the fees necessary to make it pay for itself, do you price those people who it’s for out of it?” she said.

The design consultants for the Greenview water park suggest a $5 per person admission fee. But they also project annual shortfalls – nothing close to Drew’s, however.

Rates at Greenview had been $3 for adults and $2 for children while the pool was open, Caton said. High-use discounts were available.

The waterpark stands a better chance than other parks of bringing money into city coffers, even with discounted admission prices for frequent users, he said.

Devine said she expects that Greenview’s upgraded park still will have to be subsidized by taxpayers, as are most municipal parks.

A minority of council has talked about raising the budget for parks and recreation as the Genesis consultants recommended, she said.

But Devine holds strong memories of the joys of a neighborhood pool and visions of the new water park.

“I grew up swimming in the Greenview pool,” she said. “My grandparents lived in Greenview. I love the Greenview Park plan.”

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