By Mary Spicer
There’s no gentle way to put this. Meadville Area Recreation Authority is struggling to find a path through a fiscal minefield created when Crawford Central School District announced the end of swimming lessons for every fourth-grader in the district, the termination of swimming as part of the curriculum for secondary students and the elimination of an annual payment that as recently as 2010 accounted for more than a quarter of the authority’s $1 million annual budget.
Straddling the Meadville/West Mead Township line off Thurston Road, the authority’s 47-acre Meadville Area Recreation Complex provides facilities including an enclosed competition swimming pool, enclosed ice rink, tennis courts, baseball fields, soccer fields and nature/cross-country trails in a park-like setting adjacent to Crawford County Career & Technical Center and the Meadville Area Middle-Senior High School complex.
The authority’s funding has traditionally been provided by the school district, the City of Meadville and West Mead and Vernon townships. In 2011, Crawford Central reduced its $262,000 annual contribution by $62,000.
“To be honest with you, we thought at that time that they were going to be moving the amount back up,” Chairman Joe McDougal told the Tribune during a recent interview that included authority member Roger Gildea and Executive Director Mike Fisher. Instead, when the district’s 2012-13 budget was put into place, the authority was told that the district’s $200,000 contribution for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2013, will be its last.
At that point, everything changes.
“It’s conceivable that in the fall of 2013, we will be looking at whether it’s conceivable to have a winter (pool) operation,” Gildea said.
“We wouldn’t stop operation of the ice rink, but there may be some changes down the road,” Fisher agreed. “It’s unclear what we’re going to look like here in the future. We’d like to say that it will be business as usual, but that’s not the case.”
While McDougal isn’t quite ready to launch a “Save the MARC” campaign, he’s clearly worried.
“We know that we can survive ‘for awhile’ — but ‘for awhile’ becomes shorter and shorter because we know we’ve got some things in the future that are going to cause us some problems,” he said, noting that the authority will soon be responsible for making a $62,000 annual debt service payment on the biomass facility recently installed to provide winter heat for the pool as well as CCCTC and the MAMS-MASH complex.
Ironically, “The whole reason we have a winter operation was directly as a request from Crawford Central School District,” Gildea recalled. “They said that if we were going to build this pool, they’d be interested in making it a winter operation for them to use. That’s how it came about.”
The pool opened May 31, 1976; Crawford Central began using it the following fall.
“To be realistic, we’ve looked at this thing everywhere from having a successful swimming program to take the place of the Crawford Central program all the way down to having summer pool operation only,” McDougal said.
“This is how deep we’re digging. We’ve looked at developing dollar-and-cent costs for each different process. What would it take to close it down and make it just a summer operation? We’d be remiss if we weren’t doing those kinds of things,” he continued. “We’re also looking at putting a cost on each of the different services we offer, from rink to tennis courts to ball fields to cross country.”
Speaking of the cost of operating the pool year-round, “For $200,000, the school district was basically getting the use of our ice rink and our ball fields at no cost,” McDougal said.
“I hope that the school district understands that the cost of all these resources as a package deal is going to be less than if they’re going to order a la carte, so to speak,” Gildea agreed. “They’ve been using the ball fields for free for 30 years.”
In the interest of moving along, MARC is now putting together a swim program that will utilize the time previously reserved by Crawford Central.
Authority members are also working on a potential partnership with Meadville Medical Center and the Meadville Family YMCA. “There are no strong specifics,” McDougal said. “We’re in the really early talking phases.”
They’re also reaching out to the community for guidance on the future of the pool.
“We’re going to need to rely on public outcry — or public support,” Gildea said. “If the people of Meadville and Crawford County don’t care — if they don’t want a pool or they think it’s the responsibility of parents to teach their kids to swim ...”
“Or if they just want it to be a summer recreational pool — that’s what we need to know,” Fisher said. “That’s the people’s prerogative. This facility isn’t here for Mike, Joe or Roger.”
“The pool isn’t going to be self-sufficient, either,” McDougal added. “We can pretty well guarantee that it’s not going to be real profitable.”
“This is a service to our community,” Fisher said. “In some ways, it’s a luxury. It’s a quality-of-life issue.”
“Other communities are pushing for this kind of thing,” Gildea said, “and we’re talking about closing a beautiful pool except for June, July and August.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.