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By Jennifer Kellner
While the City of Mount Ayr has provided a public pool for recreation and swimming instruction for over 60 years, this public amenity comes at a cost.
Communities like Bedford, Greenfield, Leon and Mount Ayr lose between $30,000-$43,000 annually to provide a public pool (see Chart 1). Many small towns are facing the replacement of their aging facilities or closure as the cost of operating public pools continues to rise.
Leon opened a new 4,280 surface area pool/aquatic center in 2002, and still continues to fund their facility at a loss of roughly $37,000 per year.
Subsidized costs of the pool at Judge Lewis Park in Mount Ayr have nearly doubled since 2008, when Mayor Don Solliday noted the City of Mount Ayr was subsidizing the pool operation approximately $25,000 a year.
The City of Mount Ayr has averaged a loss of $42,448.88 a year plus an additional $5,338.38 cost to fill the pool with water for the past 8 years (see Chart 2).
Despite the cost, two plans to provide a public pool in Mount Ayr have emerged since 2018.
One plan was brought forward by the City of Mount Ayr as a continuation of the Aquatic Center Committee’s efforts, with the help of Brent Wise, city superintendent. A special public meeting was held on July 30, 2018 at the Ringgold County Courthouse assembly room to discuss pool renovation concepts for a municipal pool and gather community input on how best to move forward.
Technically an official meeting of the Mount Ayr city council, three members of the council – Ken Robertson, Brent Ricker and Mack Greene – along with mayor Steve Fetty and city superintendent Brent Wise were present to review proposals for the renovation of the pool at Judge Lewis Park.
The discussion focused on whether to provide 10-20 more years of pool use by rehabilitating the 55-year-old leaking structure, or constructing an entirely new pool.
Another plan has been floated many times by individuals researching the viability of a wellness center in the past 10 years. Interested parties joined the Ringgold County Wellness Coalition as a means of furthering the plan, and operated as a separate committee between 2015-2019.
At the special meeting on July 30, 2018, a suggestion was made that the pool could be wrapped into the planning process for a wellness center and provide year-round use.
Wise stated that while ideas to provide a year-round facility were certainly worth further discussion, he felt it was important to complete pool improvements in the short term while exploring the vision for a full-service wellness facility in the long term.
No final decisions were made at the conclusion of that meeting.
Then on November 5, 2018, Ken Robertson asked the council to consider a resolution to move forward with Phase II of the pool project to provide detailed design, specifications, bidding and awarding of contracts. ISG had completed Phase I of the pool project and also shared concepts, options and cost estimates for various designs at the July 30, 2018 public meeting.
Brad Elliott said he preferred to survey different stakeholders such as local employers, area communities and other governmental agencies to get their input and possibly to seek their financial support for the project. Elliott implied he was more interested in a wholly new facility.
Then, on November 19, 2018, Kim Greenland, serving as a spokesman for the wellness center commitee, attended the Mount Ayr city council meeting to invite participation in a roundtable-style discussion on how best to offer a swimming pool facility for area residents.
“We’re not here to take sides, indoor pool versus outdoor pool,” Greenland said. “We’re here to ask if the city is interested in a pathway to discussion [to look at all options].”
While the creation of a year-round wellness center has been a goal of the wellness center committee, Greenland stated “No plans have been set in stone.”
He suggested a group consisting of stakeholders from the city, the county, the hospital and the school could survey county residents to determine their preferences for a pool and/or wellness facility.
Greenland also asked the council to postpone any action to move forward with the renovation of the existing pool at Judge Lewis Park.
Councilman Ken Robertson, who stated his preference to move forward with the renovation plan, questioned the delay and who would pay for a feasibility study. “Where’s the money? You have no plan,” he said.
Greenland replied that answers to such questions would come as a result of the discussion among the stakeholders.
Councilman Brad Elliott, who had voiced his support for further discussion, stated that cooperation among the various stakeholders may offer the opportunity to decide the identity of our community as a whole. “I’m not in favor of rehabbing a 60-year-old pool,” he said.
Following the hour-long discussion, the council voted 5-0 to appoint Elliott and Wise to participate in the wellness center committee stakeholder discussions.
No action was taken to move forward with pool renovation.
Then on July 15, 2019 Ringgold County Wellness Coalition committee members Abby Elliott and Regan Main attended the Mount Ayr city council meeting to provide a detailed update and share findings of a public survey with the council. Results showed 45 percent of survey respondents would use either an outdoor or indoor pool, while 30.5 percent preferred an outdoor pool, and 15.8 percent preferred an indoor pool.
Councilman Mack Greene stated his main concern is if any facility is financially feasible.
“I want to know who’s pitching in,” he said. “I don’t want all this expense falling back on the city.”
The council also discussed what to do with the the existing pool, and then voted unanimously to authorize Brent Wise to research cost estimates for improving the existing pool. No other funding was approved.
The wellness center committee went on to seek support from community leaders among area schools and medical centers, and enlisted the help of Jodie Geist, Executive Director of the Ringgold County Development Corporation.
A special meeting of the Mount Ayr city Council was then held on October 12, 2022 in the assembly room at the Ringgold County Courthouse to discuss current efforts to build a new outdoor swimming pool at Judge Lewis Park as well as a multipurpose educational/recreational facility.
City superintendant Brent Wise opened that meeting by sharing that in 2021 the city had entered into an agreement with JEO engineering firm to present several concepts and cost estimates for a new outdoor pool. Wise then presented a drawing of the latest concept for a roughly 4,000 square-foot pool, expected to cost roughly $3 million.
Ringgold County Development director Jodie Geist served as spokesperson for the group exploring the viability of a facility being called the “Ringgold Center.” Geist noted they had also hired an architect and construction firm for pre-design and development.
The vision for the Ringgold Center included a hybrid pool with large overhead doors that open to provide year-round access for recreation and rehabilitation needs among other amenities.
In December of 2022, the Ringgold Center was officially named “The Gold Center.” Under the leadership of an executive board including Jodie Geist, Mike Kemery, Brandi Shay, Ann Iannotta, Kim Bishop, Kim Greenland, Brad Elliott, Jen Malone, and Chris Elwood, the non-profit business entity was registered within the State of Iowa by Jodie Geist on January 13, 2023.
The City of Mount Ayr has traditionally shared the cost of the Executive Director for Ringgold County Development Corporation, a position currently held by Jodie Geist.
At their most recent meeting April 17, 2023, Mount Ayr city council members Jessica Bishop, Brad Elliott, and Jordan Stewart voted in favor of continuing to give $12,000 per year to the Ringgold County Development Corporation.
As multiple architectural and engineering firms have been hired for feasibility studies, conceptural drawings and renderings, the cost of bringing two proposals before the public must be considered.
Regardless of which plan moves forward, past expenditures suggest either plan to provide recreational amenities will likely operate at a loss. Now that an avenue to fund a public pool has been created, the question facing our decision makers is not necessarily which plan to choose, but rather, what are the associated costs?
(Part 3 continues next week)