The Flagler County School Board is inviting the county commission and Palm Coast government to a joint meeting to find ways to keep the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club open. The school board has owned the club since 1996.
School board members don’t want to close the facility. But for the second time in six years, the club is in deficit and the district is using dollars designed to run its K-12 operations to keep it afloat, though the club is used primarily by adults. That’s not a tenable situation.
“If we can’t financially make this work, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that hey, I wouldn’t close it down, OK?” Trevor Tucker, the chairman of the school board, said today at the end of a 90-minute discussion about the club’s finances and its fate. The board was meeting in workshop this afternoon. “Financially this has to work. Whether that’s partnering with cities, county, whatever. These board members here, they believe, I believe that they can get through, and I hope we can. But if we can’t, I’m not going to lie to anyone and tell you that I would not instantly close it down if we can’t financially afford it. That’s a realistic, one of the many, many situation’s outcomes. I hope that doesn’t occur, but I’m at least one to tell you, that is always a possibility.”
It isn’t clear to what extent either the county or the city would be willing–or able–to help. The county has been doing its share, contributing $25,000 a year since 2016, when the club was last in trouble. The city has its own challenges with its Freida Zamba pool, not long ago renamed an aquatic center, and a vast array of parks with their own amenities.
The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club’s deficit six years ago was $236,000. The situation is not as dire this year, and it was exacerbated by the covid pandemic, which is waning. The deficit this time is also significantly smaller than numbers than had been disseminated earlier this year after previous board discussions. The club’s membership deficit is $41,000. When the adult community education program is added, the deficit grows by another $33,000. Both memberships and community education enrollment have declined because of the pandemic. On the other hand, the facility is generating $17,000 from the FlaglerFluid Club, a private swimming club that uses Swim and Racquet’s pool.
The facility is also in need of repairs, from parking lot resurfacing ($68,000), a bit of a Sisyphean venture that surrounding trees’ roots quickly invalidates, to tennis court resurfacing ($48,800), though Board member Jill Woolbright, who used to work at the facility, has doubts about court’s popularity in a city with many other well-kept tennis courts, to removing a portable building long past its useful life, to fixing electrical issues. Some of the repairs are a matter of safety, Dave Freeman, the district’s facilities director, said.
School Board member Cheryl Massaro, who for years ran the Teen Center jointly funded by the district and the county, said there are models in place of joint government operations that benefit the community, among them the Teen Center and the Carver Center, or Carver Gym in Bunnell, which also was at the precipice over a decade ago before a public outcry and partnerships saved it.
“I don’t think anybody up here wants to take the pool away from our kids, our high school teams, from our community,” School Board member Jill Woolbright said. “It’s not that we want to take anything away. It’s just, basically, the truth be told, it was gifted to us, and the only reason we have is because it was gifted to us, and there is not another county in the state of Florida where the school system owns a swim and racquet club.” She said even though students use the pool, the club is a “luxury” to the community. “That’s not to say that that doesn’t make us extra special, we don’t continue to do that. It’s just to say that it’s been so mucha part of the community that it is a part of the soul of the community, I agree, I’ve been here since 1989, I know. But it’s a very unique situation, and we need municipalities to help pay for a municipality pool.” She said the club is worth preserving, “but we can’t do it on the backs of the money that needs to go toward the children sitting in schools.”
To those who know it–and many don’t–Belle Terre Swim and Racquet is a beloved club soaked in nostalgia for the days when Palm Coast was a small subdivision and the racquet club its only sports facility, with four tennis courts, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a weight room, a sauna and space for classrooms and socialization. Its older club members aside, the club is not without big contingents of younger users, including the two high schools’ swimming teams, the famed Synchro Belles, the very active and often, at competitions, decorated synchronized swimming organization (it has a petition going to “save our pool”), and Flagler Fluid, the private swimming group.
“It’s not about putting Adult Ed in a position of earning a profit,” School Board member Colleen Conklin said, referring to the district’s Adult Education division that includes the club. “It’s really about breaking even, and thank God we’ve had those programs like extended day [the child care programs at the beginning and end of school days], where we’ve been able to take those dollars and actually meet the needs of the other programs that fall into the red.” She added: “I don’t know how it got out that there was a final decision to close the pool, but that’s not been the decision.”
In October 1996, Lowe/Palm Coast Inc., which had bought many properties previously owned by ITT–Palm Coast’s original developer–donated the club to the school district. It had briefly been run by Palm Coast Resorts after Lowe took over for ITT. The school board voted 4-1 to accept the unusual gift, which placed the district in the strange position of running a health club. The one vote in opposition was that of Jim Canfield, who would later become Palm Coast’s first mayor. Canfield was worried about the club’s operating budget and the district’s ability to carry the burden. His worry was premature, but not misplaced.
In 1997, the first full year that the district owned the facility, the Swim and Racquet Club took in $231,000 in memberships and fees from 350 members. Even as Palm Coast not only grew but ranked for several years among the fastest-growing communities in the nation in subsequent years, adding parks, tennis courts, a municipal swimming pool and a good number of fitness centers, the club did not grow apace. Its membership has fluctuated up and down. It was around 475 six years ago, when it faced its last deficit. It now has 197 full-time members who pay $225 a year, a membership number depressed by covid’s effects. It has an additional 1,050 card-holders who generate $3 in club revenue every time they swipe in, through such insurance programs as Silver Sneakers and Florida Health Care, but those swipes can be fitful.
The board today was scheduled to hear presentations about the club’s finances along with those of the adult-education division that it operates under. Word somehow got out that the board intended to close the swimming pool or the club, drawing some three dozen people who spent over an hour at the beginning of the meeting imploring board members not to move ahead with closing plans. The speeches were impassioned, drawing on memories (one of the speakers is the son of the ITT-affiliated member who had the third recorded membership at the club decades ago) and affection for the sort of place that means as much to some residents as small post offices and neighborhood schools used to, if those faced the prospect of closing.
“It’s part of a larger conversation,” Conklin said, “it’s probably more appropriate for an actual aquatic center. That is not the business of the school district, if you will. A partnership in that, maybe, but that is not the business of the school district. But really what needs to happen in Flagler County is an aquatic center of some sort. But it’s curious how the conversation has evolved. Nobody is making the decision to close the pool. We’re trying to find out how to be responsible financially while providing a service, and really trying to have a conversation about who needs to come to this table, that’s an appropriate partner in this conversation.”
“I believe we’d be pretty close to breaking even without the covid impacts,” Massaro said.