Bill Pendergraft

When residents think about Meadville Area Recreation Complex this time of year, most of their attention understandably tends to focus on the George S. DeArment Ice Arena.  

It’s cold out, after all, and the hockey rink isn’t available for ice skating during summer months — winter is the ice arena’s time to shine.

But while the smooth, clear ice produced by the MARC’s recently installed chillers and leveled by its newly purchased resurfacing machine is fielding plenty of skating traffic, things are really starting to heat up next door in the George J. Barco Aquatic Center.

The excitement stems from two recent developments: the creation of an aquatics director position to lead pool-side activities and the MARC’s new-found status as the only game in town when it comes to publicly accessible swimming pools.

Today, Bill Pendergraft begins his second week on the job today as the new aquatics director for the facility. Previously an aquatics director for Boy Scouts of America in Grove City, Pendergraft comes to the MARC with six years of experience as a Marine reservist as well as training in outdoor adventure athletics. 

“I wanted more of a hands-on, interactive, education-type of gig rather than a desk job,” Pendergraft said of his interest in making the move to the MARC. “The Boy Scout job was much more of a desk job than I anticipated, so coming from that to something where I’m more active and hands-on is going to be pretty good.”

Seated beside Pendergraft during a recent interview at the ice arena, Aaron Rekich, the MARC’s executive director, nodded in agreement. Nearby, an unmarked ice surface awaited a late morning hockey practice session. Past the rink, a hallway led to the pool next door, where about 15 people were arranged in rows for an aqua fitness class and a handful of others made their way steadily up and down the lap lanes.

Smiling, Rekich told Pendergraft, “You’re going to be plenty active here.” 

MARC visitors, too, will soon have plenty of opportunities for more varied water activities as well. The first item on Pendergraft’s agenda, he said, is to become more familiar with the MARC’s competitive swim program. 

Recalling water survival training he underwent during a year he spent in Honduras with the Marines, Pendergraft said that one of his next goals will be to introduce an advanced swimming class open to the public.

The class, he said, would be a step “beyond a learn-to-swim program, where it’s more real-life rescue scenarios.”

“People can go through lifeguarding and get that formal education, and that’s great,” he continued, “but when you’re out and about, away from a pool in a public water scenario, I think  the more realistic situations are things that people are not always prepared for.”

Other activities he’d like to try include offering some of the MARC’s kayaking classes on French Creek and incorporating kayaking into the existing outdoor recreation program.  

Even if some water activities are moved to other bodies of water, the MARC’s pool stands to see an increase in traffic over the near term. 

In November, Meadville Family YMCA announced the permanent closure of its swimming pool, citing "significant budget constraints" resulting from the economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The closure left the MARC as the only pool option in the Meadville area for prospective swimmers without access to community pools at nearby colleges and clubs. The Y also announced that due to the closure that it would provide its members pool passes to the MARC.

It’s not a situation MARC officials were expecting, but Rekich said they are prepared. Already, the facility’s SilverSneakers program, which serves seniors and disabled adults, has seen an increase of about 30 percent in participation, according to Rekich.

Despite a seeming monopoly on pool-based fun, Rekich said visitors shouldn’t expect skyrocketing prices. 

“We’re here for the community,” Rekich said. 

And a bigger pool of customers at a single facility could benefit everyone.

“If anything,” Pendergraft agreed, “it’s just an opportunity for more programming, more ideas.” 

The MARC was not immune to the pandemic-related economic challenges that led to the closure of the Y’s pool, but Rekich’s message in end-of-the year visits to Meadville City Council and the West Mead Board of Supervisors has been optimistic.

“2021 was a very good year for us,” he told West Mead supervisors last month. “We started the year with a $65,000 deficit and we brought it down to $5,344.”

In addition, two projects were completed: renovation of the pool locker rooms and installation of a playground adjacent to the outdoor pool area.

In an interview, Rekich said thanks were due to the community for its support. The addition of Pendergraft, he added, is a major benefit of that support.

“This is going to go a long way toward helping the community as a whole for all aquatics programming,” he said.

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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