Six weeks ago, at the end of a year-long, often tortuous process that had the Flagler County School Board see-sawing between leasing or closing the troubled and ageing Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, which the district can no longer subsidize, the board reached a strained compromise. It would not lease the property, because it couldn’t find an organization qualified to take it over. But it would not close it, either, as it had planned to do in fall. Rather, it would give an ultimatum to an emerging advocacy group for the club. The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Committee, as it calls itself, would have until January 19 to secure 400 annual club memberships valued at $200 each. If the committee falls short of that number, the board would most likely close the property, which last year lost $137,000.
On Saturday, at the second open house the committee organized in less than three months, the group added more memberships, raising “between 235 and 250 annual memberships, and that was done in five weeks,” Doug Courtney, the group’s leader, said, while monetarily the group has raised $50,000.
And on Monday, in a surprise windfall, the Flagler County Commission agreed to contribute $25,000 a year to the operation, the equivalent of 13 to 15 percent of the club’s operating and personnel costs.
“Jacob came to us, we openly discussed the idea of potentially partnering,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said, referring to Superintendent Jacob Oliva. A partnership would not be unusual. School board and county share annual costs at Carver Gym in Bunnell and at the Youth Center on the campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School. “This is one way we could help on an annual basis through our social services program,” Coffey said. “I want to give Jacob and Kevin something to take back to their board so when they make a final decision on whether this is a go or no go, they know the county is on board for an annual contribution.”
The $25,000-a-year contribution will make it difficult for the school board to revoke the club’s new lease on life even if the advisory committee were to fall short of its goal.
The scaled-back hours at the club mean that it has $71,000 in personnel costs and $119,000 in operating costs, with memberships potentially providing $80,000. The rest, Kevin McCarthy, the head of the district’s Flagler Technical Institute, which includes adult-education components such as the swim club, said would be generated through daily user fees and the Silver Sneakers program, an insurance program that subsidizes users of the facility. That was before the county’s pledge of $25,000, or any additional monetary pledges from the advisory group.
The county commission made its pledge, with little discussion or opposition, during a workshop Monday afternoon. McCarthy summarized the history of the club as he’s had to do a half dozen times in the past year—its ongoing deficit, failed attempts to lease the property, and the district’s unwillingness to keep carrying the club on its own.
Commission Chairman Barbara Revels asked whether any other government was willing to participate—namely, Palm Coast. The answer is no. Palm Coast runs its own pool and so far has been uninterested in underwriting the district’s, though Mayor Jon Netts was at the latest Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club open house, last Saturday, to show his support, and said the city will be helping the club’s membership drive through its parks and recreation department, with signs and an awareness push.
At one point the county administration was considering contributing $50,000 over two years, as a one-time infusion to help the club become more attractive to potential lease holders, if Palm Coast were to also match the $50,000. “That never really went anywhere,” Coffey said. “This is more of a long-term strategy, that if the membership can stay up, we can continue to contribute as a senior program. If they cease to exist or things change in the future, obviously we won’t be bound to contribute.”
“Think of it as a gap-closure and think of it as non-school board money that helps hem close those gaps,” Coffey said. The district is not allowed to use any general fund dollars for the club’s operating costs. It must use money generated only through club memberships, and through grants.
Commissioner Charlie Ericksen asked whether memberships alone could carry the club. If history is any guide, the answer to that, too, is no: lack of enough memberships led to the deficits.
“I’m on board, what’s the next subject?” Commissioner George Hanns said, summing up his colleague’s approach.
Only one voice spoke in opposition to the plan at Monday’s meeting: Jack Carrell, who attends all city and county meetings and addresses most topics, usually with a crusty point of view that takes a dim view of government subsidies for social programs. He pointed out Palm Coast’s perennial six-figure deficits as the city keeps subsidizing its golf and tennis club, and said the school board was doing the same thing with Belle Terre. Citing the number of people who use the club—but using a figure lower than the actual—Carrell said, “250 people out of 60,000, no, 80,000, doesn’t call for support.” He said the school board was mismanaging the property and coming to the county for help.