For supporters of the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, things looked grim a few weeks ago, and got grimmer since. The school board, which owns the facility, wanted to close it to the public to stanch a six-figure deficit. It was willing to lease the property to a group that could run it. Talks with the Volusia YMCA collapsed. Then a request for proposal process went seriously awry, with bids not meeting basic requirements and the district’s purchasing director tainting the process by addressing one of the bidders’ questions directly, before the bids were opened. The school board attorney was recommending throwing out all bids.
This morning, however, the club got the equivalent of a heart transplant: it will not close. Members can buy access for the full month of October, rather than the day passes they were restricted to. And the school board meeting this morning indicated support for a plan that will turn over the facility’s membership responsibilities to the community group that’s been working hard to keep the place open, while reducing the club’s hours and personnel. But it will then be that community group’s responsibility to recruit enough members to make the club viable again. Failing that, the board will close the club to the public at an undetermined future date, and this time it sounds like it may mean it.
The turn-around took place Monday when Superintendent Jacob Oliva met with the board of directors of the community-organized Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Committee, led in large part by Carmichael McMillan and Doug Courtney, and supported by a small but ardent group of core swim club members, many of them old-timers who remember when the club was the only game in town. (One of them, born when Warren Harding was president, just turned 92, and was among the dozens of supporters who turned up at the school board meeting this morning.)
At the meeting, committee members convinced Oliva that they can take over the club in partnership with the district, take care of memberships and marketing, and even provide volunteers to defray the cost of running day to day operations. Oliva went for it, and recommended that the school board does so as well. It did.
“We have a unique opportunity here,” Oliva told the school board, recalling the club’s 18 months on life support, and recognizing the centripetal force at the center of the club’s support. “To say that there’s a strong desire to keep the racquet club open and available to those members is an understatement,” Oliva said, to the nods of the many members in the audience.
The change will take place by redefining what a membership means, Oliva said. What that means, exactly, wasn’t made clear, but it is almost certain to mean that a membership may be more in the range of a $200-a-year cost than the higher costs members have had to pay, in exchange for more limited access to the club, with six instead of seven days being open, and club doors opening at 7:30 instead of 5:30, and closing at 2 p.m. instead of 8 p.m., at least for public use. The club would still be open to the Synchro Belles and high school swim teams after hours.
“They understand the predicament that the school board is in, they understand that we’re not parks and recreation, they understand that we’re about education,” Oliva said of the committee members, and addressing them directly: “We’re putting the ball in your court. We don’t have the folks to go out and recruit members.”
Board members were amenable, especially in light of the bidding fiasco. The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Committee had been among the three bidders. It has filed for a non-profit designation with the IRS. But it hasn’t yet been approved. When committee members wrote Carmen Campanella, the purchasing director, about their status, she told them directly that they could have a pending non-profit application in the pipeline and be eligible for the bid. But she did not upload those answers—as required by the process—to the web site for the other bidders to see as well (answering the bidders directly was also a misstep), Kristy Gavin, the board attorney, said.
That led to a meeting between Gavin and the committee members, followed by the meeting between the committee board of directors and Oliva, and what appears to be a workable resolution.
Despite the tainted bid process, board member Andy Dance said, the intent was to find a community group willing to step up. That was successful. But he warned: “The district needs to stay out of the membership business,” regardless of how it moves forward. “As long as we recoup those costs, it’s a good plan.”
“There’s a lot of unknowns in this plan. All I want to know is are we going to make a decision on Oct. 20,” board member Trevor Tucker said. “This keeps getting drawn out.” He wants hard lines: specific goals to be met, and if those goals aren’t met—including the required number of members to make the place work, which McMillan put at 800, a tripling of the number at the club’s lowest ebb—then the board needs to end the club’s existence as a public facility.
“I believe that’s the spirit of conversation that we had,” Oliva said. “We can’t sustain this deficit ongoing, and I think everybody in the room understands the predicament we’re in.”
One of the challenges for the committee is the age of its core members: the room was filled with older people. The club will not be sustainable if it cannot draw on the younger people who have migrated to Palm Coast’s and the county’s many health clubs.
“There are not many young members of the racquet club,” McMillan said. “We’ll fix that with events like the fund-raiser.” He said younger people do use the club as it is. “They don’t do school board meetings,” he said.
The concrete plan for the retooled club will be developed over the next two weeks and submitted to the school board for approval on Oct. 20.