Reclaiming a lost history
From the CAT’s perspective, part of the reason why the MARC is in this situation lies in the slow but steady erosion of community understanding of the facility’s history and purpose.
CAT member Jim Duratz recalled that his late sister-in-law, Yolanda Barco, was intimately involved in establishing the MARC in 1976.
“Yolanda was in favor of the complex,” MARC Executive Director Mike Fisher agreed. “If Yolanda hadn’t led the charge from her seat on Meadville City Council, this might not have come together.”
More than 20 years later, Barco also played a key role in encouraging Vernon Township to become a participant along with the school district, the City of Meadville and West Mead Township in funding the complex, Fisher added.
The idea for the facility started because of a history of tragic child drownings in French Creek, which was at the time one of few places for children to escape the summer heat. Duratz remembers those days well. At the time he was a Pennsylvania State Police trooper. “The hardest thing was seeing a kid pulled out of that creek,” Duratz said. “People forget what it was like.”
In order to put an end to the needless deaths, the MARC was intended to provide a safe place for kids to swim at a facility all families could afford. It was specifically located, Duratz and Lang recall, next to the complex that now houses Meadville Area High School and Middle School because the school district put learn-to-swim requirements in the curriculum as a further effort to protect kids. “The school was very, very much a part of the whole structure,” Duratz said. “Back then everybody was very happy and excited about it.”
At that time, the community decided to make a significant investment for its children, Duratz and Lang point out, and since then millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested in the facility.
In some respect, Duratz believes the MARC is something of a victim of its own success. Today, childhood drownings in the creek are a rarity, which is good. But that fact has also allowed the community to forget while the facility was erected in the first place.
Because of this loss of historical knowledge, Lang argues that he and many others in the community were slow to respond as the school board incrementally cut its budget for the MARC and then decided to remove it completely.
However, he points out that when it became clear that the budget cuts might endanger the facility’s future operation, the community rallied. A public input session called by the MARC drew more than 200 in early February.
While that meeting was encouraging, CAT members who have met with the MARC board and the school board have concluded that a third party is needed to move the MARC forward. They point out that neither board wants to see the MARC damaged but they have been unable to find a solution. CAT members also stress that it was the community that decided what the MARC should be, so it should be community that decides what happens next.
“It’s time to have this conversation,” Lang said. “We are asking for people’s thoughts, ideas and help. We don’t think this is a bridge too far. This is about making things better. It’s a wonderful opportunity.”