Over two years ago, the Elkhart Community Schools had a challenge of how to transition out its two failing 40-year-old pools that were incrementally costing more to repair and operate. The current pools surpassed their natural life span and building new pools was seemingly the only solution. Building two new pools would be $16 million ($8 million per pool) and would have required a bond issuance. The annual operating costs for the pools were $250,000 per year. With the bond and long-term financial considerations, the total investment for new pools required the schools and community tax payers $21 million over 20 years.
In its early planning stages, the “Elkhart Health Fitness and Aquatics Center” project team was formulating their strategy. In the midst of their process, a power surge forced the prior local YMCA, then called The Center, to close its doors due to over $50,000 of damage requiring compounded fundraising efforts for its failing building with multiple functional and structural issues. As the only programmed community pool, this closure coupled with the school’s pools challenge, resulted in the reality that the Elkhart community could potentially not have a community pool for aquatics programming and teaching kids how to swim.
The scope of the aquatics center planning team’s vision was to create an aquatics center that would be a noted attraction for local and regional amateur swimming competitions. The desire was to create a reason for people to visit Elkhart for competitive swimming and to provide the community a daily resource for swimming, fitness and gathering at the downtown River Walk trail connections.
Learning about the school’s pools challenge provided an opportunity to consolidate resources and leverage the costly proposition that community aquatics centers face to operate. Pools are expensive and they learned through other communities that the business model only makes sense if multiple uses and revenues are leveraged to fully utilize pool capacity at all operating hours and days of the week. Successful business models achieve this through partnerships typically involving schools, healthcare and fitness providers and community centers.
Discussions with Beacon Health and Fitness were engaged to explore how to leverage pools for daily fitness, aquatics and therapy needs. Together the aquatics planning team and aquatics experts worked with the school’s athletic directors, Beacon Health and Fitness, and The Center’s directors to program all aspects of the potential pool and wellness complex.
As a result, the $60 million aquatics center project includes an additional $10 million endowment raised to construct and maintain the pool for the years to come. Instead of the schools investing $18 million in capital expenditures to build new pools, the school contributed $6 million for upfront capital expenditures. Additionally, their 20-year lease agreement is $400,000 per year and this amount will be reviewed and adjusted annually based on actual use. Over 20 years, the school’s total investment is estimated to be $14 million versus $21 million if they built and maintained their own pools. With the school’s contribution, the overall project was able to meet the requirements of 20% public funding to receive an additional $9 million in state funding from the Regional Cities Initiative.
The Memorial High School pool has already been repurposed as a band rehearsal space per its current $10 million capital plan. The Central pool will be mothballed and repurposed at a later date. Additionally, plans are in progress for either all third or fifth graders to learn how to swim at the new aquatics center. Years ago, this program was removed from the schools.
As a result of this public-private partnership, the schools have saved millions while the private sector orchestrated raising all funds required to provide the community with a state-of-the-art facility that will attract residents, visitors and investors for future economic development growth opportunities in the River District as part of the City of Elkhart’s downtown revitalization efforts.