ITT built the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club in 1979 during Palm Coast’s pre-history, when it was supposed to be the first of many such swimming and fitness venues spread through the city. Like many of ITT’s plans, that one was stunted. The club turned out to be the only one built. ITT turned it over to the Flagler County School Board, which for many years used it to great profit. It was, as its officials described it, the only game in town.
It no longer is. Fitness venues have popped up everywhere, some of them offering $10-a-month rates. Membership at the Belle Terre club has plummeted almost by half in just two years, to around 475. The facility shows its age. It needs at least $232,000 in basic maintenance. It keeps its pool’s temperature at barely tolerable—and to some of its younger patrons such as Palm Coast’s Synchro Belles, intolerable—levels.
And it’s losing money. In the first six months of the year the racquet club has run up a $69,000 deficit, an annual loss of $138,000. The club is run by Flagler County schools’ Adult and Community Education Department, which by law must be self-funded: it may not run its operations with tax dollars. Adult and community education funds itself through its 39 community education classes, with about 165 students per session. That department had a $320,000 deficit last year, according to school board member Sue Dickinson. It was restructured in hopes of ending the losses. The losses continue. The department, in addition to its racquet club losses, is running a $98,000 deficit this year, for a total projected loss of $236,000.
“OK, that was a little bit of a bummer,” School Board Chairwoman Colleen Conklin said after hearing the numbers in what proved to be the evening’s understatement.
Adult and Community Education Director Kevin McCarthy submitted the sobering numbers to the school board last week. “When you hear this information I hope that people understand the challenge that we’re presented,” he said. “We see all the losses. We see a facility that’s aging, and we are committed to continuing operations at Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club like we always have. How do we do that if we continue to lose money?”
Personnel and operations alone add up to close to $200,000, pool and plant maintenance alone at the club adds another $47,000. Electricity for the pool runs about $1,000 a month during the winter months. “I would agree, the pool is uncomfortably cold, and we’re going to work on that,” McCarthy said. Nevertheless, McCarthy was emphatic: “We are committed to maintaining the current path. We are going to continue to operate Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club.”
How? That’s not yet clear. A new facility is not an option: it would cost nearly $1 million, money the district does not have to spend on such a facility. Even modernizing the bathrooms and facilities would cost almost as much. McCarthy and Superintendent Jacob Oliva cited several other possibilities: cutting hours, raising rates, seeking grants, seeking partnerships with Palm Coast and the county as well as private concerns such as businesses or sponsors of the Synchro Belles, whose advocates—like other patrons of the swim club—gave the school board an earful last week as they demanded better service.
But Oliva did not leave the criticism unaddressed and at one point turned the tables back to taxpayers, putting some of the responsibility for the club’s decline on them.
“We don’t want to put anybody in a position or feel like they’re not being heard,” Oliva said. “We are reflecting on trying to figure out a sustainable way, a long-term, sustainable plan. Everybody says they want action, they want action now, they want answers. It’s very complicated. When you look at where our funding comes in, it’s very much dictated on where it goes out. Extra programs such as community education, we do not get those funding—I hear a lot of folks say I pay taxes in the community. The state statutes are very clear on where and how we spend those dollars. The taxes that you pay for enhancing the quality of life in parks and recreation departments do not come to us. So community education and providing these programs has always been something that the school district’s been able to do when they’ve been self-sustaining. Over the last couple of years, they have not been, and it’s put the school board and everybody else in a tough predicament.”
Oliva continued: “We went to the public two years ago and asked for a half mil to help support and pay for these endeavors, and it was denied. So when people say how come you don’t ask for additional help, how come you don’t ask for additional support—we did. We had a failed referendum two years ago, and at that point we were not able to because on top of that failed referendum we lost a .25 that helped supplement these programs. Sao we went from .25 to zero two years ago, which is why you started seeing changes happen, because we do not have additional tax dollars to implement and put into this program.”
Board member Andy Dance rejected the notion that the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club is the only heated pool in town. He noted that Palm Coast’s Frieda Zamba pool is, in fact, a heated pool. “The city chose not to heat it any longer,” for the same reasons that the school district has been facing, Dance said, or “probably because they know we have a heated one.” He suggested that the city has a responsibility in the equation. “Those are the partnerships that we’ve got to open back up again, and find out where that disconnect is,” Dance said.
None of the five board members were at all comfortable with the direction of either the racquet club or community education, financially, but only one—Trevor Tucker—is already at the point where he wants to end both ventures absent radical fee increases.
“To me, personally, we need to shut them both down,” Tucker said. “We don’t have the funds to maintain these things, and no one wants to hear that, but I’m realistic. Either that or we have to double the fees for community education and double the fees for the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club membership. One or the other, because we cannot maintain, we cannot lose this money.” He pressed his point: “To lose over $200,000 a year, even consider that and then sink more money into it, just is absolutely insane in my opinion, OK? Now, I hope someone has some better ideas, because I don’t. I just see that it is declining, membership has been declining. That’s me, and I know no one wants to hear that, but to me we should shut those programs down, both of them.”
Dickinson wasn’t far behind. “If our membership is going down 65 percent, that’s huge. That’s a huge financial loss for us. How can we sustain that when the membership drops so significantly?” she said, admonishing a member of the public who tried to interrupt her. “If the membership is down, the income isn’t there. That’s plain and simple. Sure, when ITT gave us this pool, oh, it was a wonderful thing. It was such a great gift. What they didn’t leave us was the dollars to maintain it over the years.” Raising taxes is not an option, Dickinson said, but she suggested that the pool should be Palm Coast’s responsibility, based on the parks and recreation impact fees the city collects.
Janet McDonald, the newest member of the board and ostensibly its most conservative, provided the most measured suggestion of the evening. “Before we cut the turkey’s head off we should kind of explore this for a little longer, knowing that that is the reality of the situation, and that maybe to get more compelling with our other government partners, the private partnerships, and anyone that wants to put a banner up at the pool for a little advertisement,” McDonald said. She described the pool as “a vital community facility, just as vital as our football fields and our basketball courts, and we have to find out some way to make it work.”
The board members’ discussion was book-ended by dozens of comments from users of the racquet club, including supporters of and participants in the Synchro Belles, whose competitive successes nationally have been almost routine: the group’s 40 girls ranked sixth at a national competition in Seattle last year. They train six days a week at the pool.
“I understand the pool is being heated, but it’s not being heated to the appropriate temperature,” Greg Hinman, a Synchro Belles representative, said. Mary Ellen Cook, an assistant coach for the Synchro Belles and an instructor at Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, said she understands that K-12 education is the board’s priority, but that physical fitness should be part of that priority. The Synchro Belles’ team, she said, grew despite the Great Recession, and should be nurtured as a unique offering in Palm Coast. “We had people relocate from Miami, Orlando and even California, which is where most Olympians come from, to be part of our program,” Cook said.
“All these kids are not sitting in front of the computer, they’re not out in the streets doing drugs or whatever,” Jeff Sullivan, a lap-swimmer from Palm Coast, said. “This pool is the only game in town, you close this pool and the next pool is clear in St. Augustine that’s open in the daytime. I’m a snowbird, I can go to St. Augustine. I’d rather live in Palm Coast.”
Conklin, the board chairwoman, summed up the matter with a few correctives and cautions. “We are not the only game in town,” she said. “There are other opportunities. We could look at a host of reasons why we have had a decline in membership. It could be because other gyms are giving away memberships for hardly anything, it could be because the conditions of the gym and the facilities have declined to a point where people don’t—they’re leaving to go somewhere else. But the reality of the situation is we have a financial situation in front of us,” with board members seeing numbers for the first time that evening, she noted. “Over a $200,000 loss at the end of the year is exceptionally concerning to me, and at a future meeting, I would like to see exactly how we’re going to cover that.”
Temporary fixes won’t work in the long run, she said. “But we’ve got to come up with a long-term, sustainable solution for this, because what we have in front of us is not going to work long term. This is a band aid on something that is really hemorrhaging.”
McCarthy is committed to that solution. “All three of my children learned to swim at Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club. It’s very important to us as a family, and we’ve been members for many years,” he said. “Community education is an opportunity for us to connect with the majority of our Flagler County residents who do not have students in schools. And we need to do that the right way. There’s been a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questions and concerns.”
We have lived here since 2003. Got a summer membership every year at Frieda Zamba. We have not the last couple. I would love for my kids to get to go swim when out of school. But anymore you can’t get in the pool due to all the summer camp kiddos. It’s just gets worse every year. I am all for summer programs. But stinks for the rest of us who want to go swim before 5pm.
Glenn Partelow says
Frieda Zamba is run by the City of Palm Coast not the school board. I swim there almost evety day when they are open and consistantly have a lane or two to choose from.
The problem is the Parks and Rec director chooses to wait until April 1 to open with limited hours. Then on the day after Labor Day close on Sunday then on October 1 close on weekends and limit hours during the week. This does not help famliies seeking recreation when they might have time during the week.
The current manager of the pool is doing a fine job keeping it clean and warm.
The City needs to find simeone with an aquatic bent to encourage use. After all September is hardly a time in Florida to get ready for the winter……….unless you live in Vetmont!
Lena Marshall says
go complain to the city, Mr Landon, he is the one you should air your greivance with Belle Terre is its own entity.
lena Marshal says
Its about time they were honest and looked within, hats off to Tucker and Ms Conklin. The school District is should not be in the business of a health club, especially if it is in the red.
I got a membership during the summer a couple of times. But my family only uses the pool, and I didn’t want to pay for the membership including the gym. I liked it when they had the kids’ gym open in the evenings.
Why not explore the possibility of selling or donating the facility to a group such as the YMCA or YWCA.
That’s a cool idea, I think!
Angela-they are talking about Belle Terre Swim Club, not Freda Zambia. You would like BTSC if you want quiet.
Call Jim Landon or Jon Netts.
The city of Palm Coast has two recreation facilities, each one has a yearly six figure loss.
Offer the pool to the city and it would be true to form for them to accept it. They may even emulate the county and pay the school board for their white elephant.
The taxpayers in the city would just have another entity to subsidize.
MY son learned how to swim there when he was a baby ,was waiting for spring to get advanced swimming lessons why not give it a compleat make over start getting bids the gym needs new equipment people will go there no ither place has as much to offer ..
Lena Marshall says
Rob, that is the solution, FCSB should be in the pool business. The pool is not legal size to have meets
This was a hidden treasure for awhile, but now it is a eye sore.
It is a shame , lots of good memories.
Eliminate adult ed? Why not it’s the adults who pay the taxes for these facilities. Just keep giving less for their tax dollars. In the mean time lets pay administrators more money.
We need better officials and proper marketing, maybe instead of paying out all the commisioners ludicris salaries we could spend a few terms putting money into our community. Instead of letting these “officials”get fat off our taxes we should be getting things maintained, entertainment for families. I mean we all have to live here so lets try not to run it into the ground.
Lost Business says
We stopped going to both pools when the Red light Cameras (RLCs) were installed at nearly every intersection in PC. Roundtrip, I counted 19 intersections with RLCs from where I live to either pool. Think about it folks, every business in PC is losing money because of these RLCs! Heck, even the local government is losing tax revenue as well.
Twenty Reasons says
Twenty reasons why I stopped going to the Palm Coast Pools.
There are twenty (20) Red Light Cameras round trip to either Belle Terre Swim & Racquet Club or City Pool from residence.
1. West Bound PC PKWY & Clubhouse
2. West Bound PC PKWY & Florida Park
3. West Bound PC PKWY & Publix Shopping Center (Palm Harbor)
4. West Bound PC PKWY & Old Kings
5. West Bound PC PKWY & I-95 East Side
6. West Bound PC PKWY & I-95 West Side
7. West Bound PC PKWY & Boulder Rock
8. West Bound PC PKWY & Pine Cone
9. West Bound PC PKWY & Belle Terre
10. South Bound Belle Terre & PC PKWY
11. South Bound Belle Terre & Cypress Point PKWY
12. South Bound Belle Terre & Pine Lake
13. North Bound Belle Terre & Pine Lake
14. North Bound Belle Terre & South Bound Belle Terre
15. North Bound Belle Terre & PC PKWY
16. East Bound PC PKWY & Boulder Rock
17. East Bound PC PKWY & I-95 West Side
18. East Bound PC PKWY & I-95 East Side
19. East Bound PC PKWY & Old Kings
20. East Bound PC PKWY & Florida Park
Yea, that is right; twenty RLCs to go swim laps, forget it!
I’m sorry I disagree, if you are driving responsible, I don’t see a problem with the RLC. And regarding the privacy matter about the RLC, go into any store or walk around town and I guarantee you, your are on video more times than you realize.
Nancy N says
I see those cameras trip for false alarms all the time. Also, the city’s own statistics show that accidents have increased at the RLC intersections since they were installed. Those cameras are downright dangerous because of people panic braking to avoid a ticket, or not paying attention to their surroundings because they are obsessively watching the light instead, worried that it will change on them.
As for the surveillance…try remembering your high school civics. There’s a HUGE difference from a legal and constitutional standpoint between government surveillance in public and a private company doing security surveillance on their own property that requires a subpoena for the government to demand use of.
Because I Can says
I like the idea of donating it to the YMCA…that would be wonderful….rather than just shut it down. I also like the idea of business owners advertising there and maybe open to some businesses being able to have booths to sell their wares for a monthly rent. Think out of the box people. Get some local pools guys to help maintain the pool and landscapers for the landscaping for free memberships. Plan events each month to catch the attention of the community.
ted bundy says
90000 people live around palm coast/flagler and we can’t keep a public pool or 2 open??!! but somehow we get new trees and schrubs all over town blocking our driving views?? say what!!!!!!!!!!!!
I agree, I would think the School Board could come up with some solutions. Many seniors including myself depend on the pool for re-hab. And please don’t forget, us seniors pay our fair share of taxes in Flagler County / Palm Coast.
I also like the idea of either donating or selling the facility to a private interest. The government should NOT be competing against private gyms and workout facilities. These facilities and operations are competing against one another. It’s the competition that drives these facilities to be maintained properly, have nice equipment and competitive pricing for their services. Why should this facility’s costs be constantly burdened by us taxpayers when nicer, newer and better facilities are not?
Take some of those high paid redundant school administrators positions at over 90,000 each and we keep the taxpayers pool and the adult education open. Read how many curriculum bla bla specialist the school have at over 80,000 each. Pure red tape while reducing the services to the very taxpayers that sustain the system. Until when is the citizenry here going to allow their sheep shearing?
Membership dropped because the pool & tennis courts went to pot! Why??? Because in the last two years the School Board removed the full-time custodian and the full-time lifeguards!! Nobody takes care of the place, now!! We see a maintenance guy every other day or so and only for a few hours!! This is too big a facility to not have a full-time maintenance staff!! The pool is not cleaned the way it used to be, the bathrooms are not cleaned regularly the pool deck is not swept. I even spoke to a long-term tennis member who said she’s moving on to the new tennis Center because at BTSRC, they had to sweep the courts themselves before they could play!! Give our maintenance guys back!!!
We sure don’t pay less taxes, to get less services. The local officials take away our services simply because we let them like sheep to the shearing.