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Pondering public pool preservation

$1.24 million needed to keep pool afloat in Moores Park

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The future of one of the longest continuously operating public pools in the nation remains uncertain as city officials grapple with a $1.2 million repair bill and the possibility of summertime heartbreak across Lansing.

Lansing Mayor Andy Schor announced last week he would consider “just about everything” to keep the 97-year-old Moores Park Pool open for another season. But with thousands of gallons leaking out every summer, pipes rusting and concrete cracking — and the possibility that the pool's chlorinated water is seeping into the Grand River — its continued operation remains in jeopardy without some cash to fix it, he said.

“It’s time for us to address the problems with this pool rather than putting $100,000 every year into Band-Aids, which aren’t working because it’s still leaking,” Schor said.

Schor said the whole job does not need to be done in one year, “but I need to fund some of the fixes.”

Schor and a few City Council members — with only so much cash to spread across more than 100 different parks — are hesitant to float the repair costs in their entirety. The city has since turned to the local philanthropic community to churn up suggestions. And it doesn’t look like the pool will sink without a fight.

“There’s always a big price tag with anything of architectural and historical significance, said Bill Castanier, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. (Castanier is an editorial contributor to City Pulse.)

“The question this city really needs to answer is whether this is worth saving and whether we’d all be willing to put in some blood, sweat and tears in order to save the pool.”

Castanier said the Historical Society and Preservation Lansing are eyeing early plans to launch a joint fundraising campaign. Donations could flow from local businesses, developers and the more passionate neighborhood residents.

“There’s a track record in Lansing of public and private partnerships, and I could certainly see this happening for the pool,” Castanier added. “This is important and could be part of our legacy for the next generation. We don’t often get the chance to look at something this significant and have an ability to do something about it.”

“This could find some broad support in the city,” added Preservation Lansing President Dale Schrader. “It’s unique, but it’s more than just a mere relic of our past. The community still uses this space. It makes our city more livable. It attracts tourists. It’s really something for Lansing to be proud of. We can’t afford to lose it.”

The egg-shaped public pool along Moores River Drive was built. Designed by former city engineer Wesley Bintz, the pool is believed to be one of only five of its design that have survived beyond the first half of the 20th century. Only a few still operate today.

But while the iconic pools, with their concrete archways and unique, above-ground design, serve a certain historical significance to the community, they can also be notoriously difficult (and expensive) to maintain.

The city pays about $100,000 annually to keep the pool open, but a recent Park Department report shows the cost of decades of neglected maintenance. Rusted piping needs to be replaced. Discharge valves spill directly into the Grand River and need to be rerouted. The concrete interior is forming several cracks.

The cost for the “needed” repairs rests at $1.24 million  — with room to grow.

Also, Schor said the pool — for unknown reasons — loses 8-10 inches of water daily. And given its proximity to the riverfront, the chlorinated pollution may be finding its way into the Grand River. That’ll need to be fix No. 1, Schor said.

“I don’t know how much it costs to continually refill, but between that and the damage that is done to the river and environment through leakage, it’s a big problem,” Schor added. “I didn’t know about the unknown drainage until the season was underway. Either way, it’s in really bad shape and this needs to be addressed.”

Castanier recognizes the funding challenge but plans to resist the possibility of closure by any means necessary.

“I’ve informally polled my board, and it sounds like we’re interested in getting behind an effort to help save it, whether that means private or public fundraising or something else altogether,” Castanier added. “This goes well beyond the city’s resources, but 50 years from now, if we allow it to disappear, we’ll regret that decision.”

The conversation surrounding the future of the Moores Park Pool — one of three city pools — is a familiar one: $1.2 million could spruce up a lot of playgrounds in a lot of different parks. How much cash can the city justify pouring into one facility that only operates 10 weeks out of the year?

“We have other parks and equipment that need our attention and I just don’t see how we can justify spending all of this money on one pool,” explained Councilwoman Jody Washington. “I just don’t think it’s feasible. It saddens me. It really does, but I just don’t see what else can be done without some other revenue coming in.”

Lansing’s parks millage brings in about $2.1 million annually, but last year about $600,000 was used to subsidize the city’s cemeteries and Groesbeck Golf Course. Annual maintenance and other pet projects (like wireless Internet installation) usually only leave room for a few additional improvements each year.

And the City Council has to be mindful of the entire city — not just the nostalgic end of Moores River Drive.

“$1.2 million is a lot of money,” said City Council Vice President Peter Spadafore. “It’s over half of our parks millage. Spending that on one project means numerous projects across the rest of the city will be neglected. I’m all ears for ways to try and save the pool, and I think the city should have some skin in the game, but I’m hoping the philanthropic and business communities are willing to come to the table and keep this local asset afloat.”

Schor is weighing alternative uses for the pool in the event of its closure, but noted demolition is not an option.

Bintz pools have been closing across the country for decades. The city of Weirton, West Virginia — faced with more than $1 million in repair costs of its own — was forced to shutter its pool in 2007. Today, it’s nothing but a makeshift storage facility awaiting demolition. Officials there blamed unsurmountable costs for its demise.

“We’re thinking about maintaining the front part or an archway to preserve some of the original structure,” said Weirton Parks and Recreation Director Coty Shingle. “We’ve talked about opening up some type of skating rink. I think people realized this was a bit of a pipe dream. The easiest thing now would be to knock it down.”

The city of Tampa, Florida, offered one of only a few — albeit expensive — success stories after it reopened its Bintz pool in 2016 at a cost of more than $3.2 million. Leaks forced city officials to close the pool in 2009, and neighborhood residents rallied for five years to raise cash before the city allocated its own resources to the effort.

“I recognize the nostalgia,” added Councilwoman Patricia Spitzley. “But as an at-large member, I don’t know if I’m comfortable saying we’re going to spend $1 million-plus to repair this thing. I’m still supportive of keeping the space natural or trying to find some other beneficial, recreational use like a splashpad. I’m still open to ideas.”

Councilman Brian Jackson, whose ward encompasses the Moores Park neighborhood, suggested the pool could be reopened next summer for less than $1.2 million as officials track down a more sustainable way to pay for the long-term renovations. He’d like the city to put up some stopgap cash as the pool preservation efforts continue.

“It’s not so much about the preservation aspect for me, but it’s more about the service this pool provides to kids during the summer when they have nothing else to do,” Jackson added. “There are voices in that neighborhood that want to see these younger kids have something positive to do rather than sit around with idle hands.”

Ingham County Commissioner Thomas Morgan is also exploring plans to split the cost of repairing the pool between the city, the county and other sources like state grants and private donations. Plans are far from solidified, but he’d also like to tap into the county’s parks and trails millage to supplant some of the repair costs.

“This pool means a lot to the community and to Lansing’s history,” Morgan said. “At the same time, it’s not fair to residents paying the city’s parks millage to have more than half going to any one single project. There are 100 parks across the city, and lots of projects waiting to get done.

While the pool continues to deteriorate, records show its popularity among Lansing residents has only grown. City data shows the number of annual visits more than doubled from 2,969 in 2014 to 6,078 this year. It leaves officials with a million-dollar question: Is it worth keeping the investment alive?

“I look at this $1.2 million and our robust park system — 16 miles of trails and 114 parks — and we’re still trying to make sure we can keep that whole system going,” said Third Ward Councilman Adam Hussain. “We need to look for different revenue sources to keep the pool open in perpetuity, but I do believe that money is out there.”

City officials encourage those with suggestions on the future operation of Moores Park Pool to contact the city’s Park Board at parkboard@listserv.lansingmi.gov. Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage.

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