The Flagler County School Board is considering selling the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club it’s owned since 1997, or closing its membership-driven club functions and restricting its use to students, whose high school teams depend on its 25-meter pool.
Those were among four options district staff presented to the school board in a workshop on Tuesday in the latest tortured discussion over what to do with a facility that has been losing money and requiring the district’s general fund to make up the difference. That’s unacceptable to some board members, who say–accurately–that general fund dollars are intended for instruction, not club subsidies.
“I don’t really know which direction to go,” Board Chairman Trevor Tucker said at the end of the fourth or fifth such discussion in the last six months on the future of the facility, with more coming. Tucker is not often flummoxed by an issue. His bottom line in this case is no subsidies. But he also recognizes the need for a pool for district students.
“As we’ve shared for the last several months, the way that the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club is operating is not sustainable,” Marta Barber, who manages the facility, told the school board, though she said later in the discussion that the club has clawed its way back into the black after facing past deficits, and could conceivably do so again. But it would likely need to expand its offerings, particularly for children. “Our aging members utilize the club more than kids do, because we don’t offer anything else for kids,” she said. And needed capital improvements there won’t go away.
“If you want to continue to run it as it currently is, there’s going to be some significant dollars that will have to be invested,” Board attorney Kristy Gavin said. “Whether or not you’d be able to get a return on that investment from the cost you would need to expend, for more dollars you’d need to receive and collect from memberships, I’m not sure how you could do that.”
The four options Barber presented Tuesday were: Sell the property. Lease the property. Revert the property solely for district use. Or continue operating the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club with memberships, but with fees that would double of more from the current $225 a year. (Curiously, neither staff nor the board have discussed the possibility of stable, long-term partnerships with the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University, both of which are launching satellite operations in Palm Coast this fall, both of whose students are used to fitness facilities being an integral part of their college or graduate school experience–not to mention part of their school fees. The option currently not available to those prospective students in Palm Coast absent memberships in private clubs, though the district could make that option available to them: Belle Terre Swim and Racquet is as close an approximation of the sort of aquatic and fitness amenities to which they would have ready access on Jacksonville campuses.)
The four options were presented to board members Tuesday as skeletal proposals, with no accompanying analysis, projections, dollar figures, membership figures or anything else that might have guided the discussion. So district staff didn’t get the direction it was seeking, other than to come back with a more fleshed-out analysis of each proposal, the way a teacher tells a student to turn in an actual essay rather than bullet points.
“I was just going to ask for the next workshop if we could actually see some options, like option A, B, C, with some kind of detail to it, in regards to the goal of breaking even or exiting the actual ownership of the property,” Board member Colleen Conklin said, “or an appropriate lease arrangement.” Tucker asked for those options, including what using the facility purely as a K-12 facility would look like, what the higher rates would be, and so on.
Nevertheless he went through each of the four options with fellow board-members to gauge where they stood on each. There was no consensus on any one option, not even consensus on what options to exclude, though it became apparent that some options are more realistic than others, while one overriding need may end up defining how the board proceeds: the pool is an irreplaceable asset and the only pool the district has for its students. Both the Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School swim teams use the pool.
“The bottom line is we do need a location where both of our teams can have access to a pool. It is smack in the middle of a community,” Conklin said, “I mean it’s centrally located. But I also appreciate the fact that it has to break even. But I think being creative with programming is that somewhere. Can we get there is the question.”
Selling the facility is seen as a last resort. But it was evident from the discussion that it was a possibility.
If the board were to sell it, it would have to conduct three appraisals at $2,500 each to set a value, then put it up for sale with a minimum bid requirement. But the board would also have to engage its bond counsel, because the Belle Terre property is tied up in current bonds, and would have to be “pulled out of that,” Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, said.
“For me, sale would be last-case option,” Conklin said, “worst case scenario.” Board member Cheryl Massaro, long a champion of youth activities (she’d directed the county-school district teen center for over a decade) agreed.
“Do we even know, do we have market value, what it could even sell it for, or what we could lease it for,” Board member Jill Woolbright asked, “is there anybody in the community that would be willing to lease it? To revert it just to the school board–there’s a lot to talk about, to consider.” (The district had little luck when it sought to lease the facility six years ago.)
“I haven’t heard enough to know, but I do know that if we sell we still have students,” Woolbright said, “two swim teams that need a place to swim.” Without that place for them to swim, the district would incur new costs to ensure that they do have a venue. Those costs would have to be balanced against the benefit of selling.
Woolbright then suggested that if the district were to sell the club, might it enter into an arrangement with Palm Coast government to use nearby Frieda Zamba pool. THat would require the city to keep the pool open year-round. The board would then “do the reverse of what the county does for us, but do for them and give them a lump sum of money in order to keep that facility open for high school students,” Woolbright said. (Fagler County government grants an annual $25,000 to the district as its contribution for the Belle Terre club.) Woolbright also wondered whether building a new pool was feasible somewhere else, an option quickly dismissed.
“So we have to have a pool, so then it’s that pool or Frieda Zamba,” Woolbright said.
Leasing has its own strict challenges. First, whoever leases it must be a non-profit with appropriate insurance coverage, like the YMCA. No Planet Fitness, no for-profit businesses. Second, the bond requirements attached to the facility dictate some uses of it. Since the facility would still belong to the district, whoever leases it would have to devote a certain percentage of the facility’s use to students. Businesses may not be willing to agree to such a percentage, Gavin said.
“Do you have any idea if anyone would want to lease it from us?” Board Chairman Trevor Tucker asked. The answer was vague. Two “groups” approached the district to talk about either leasing or purchasing, the district’s facilities director, David Freeman, said, but “I’m not sure if they’re on board,” the director said, noting that those parties were interested in a for-profit model.
“For me lease would be the least desirable because we would still have to make all the capital improvements,” Woolbright said. “The capital improvements for the property at this juncture [are] extensive. So we can’t lease a subpar facility. And I always feel that it’s better to have our own employees running something than having someone else run our properties.” But she said a “combination” of a lease and the board retaining control over some portions of the property could be a potential approach.
The district some years ago was in “very serious conversations with the YMCA,” Gavin said of 2015 talks, but the Y had requirements of its own: it was asking the district to cover its expected early-year losses of up to $100,000 on top of everything else. It’s also possible to lease out different portions of the club: one lease for the gym, one lease for the swimming pool, and so on. But Board member Janet McDonald was skeptical. “Is there a creature on the planet that is a 501 C-3 that wants to lease a facility and cover all the costs?”
The third option, which got tepid interest from board members, would be to turn it into a school district, K-12 facility–no memberships, no gym access to the general public. The district could then allow the facility to be used by outside organizations through its “Use of Facilities” agreements, the same way that schools or parts of schools are rented out to outside organizations on an hourly or daily basis. Some churches use schools on weekends, for example. The club could be rented out for a wedding or a party or to a church. Tucker said there was no benefit to that approach, since the district would still be entirely responsible for it.
Toward the end of the discussion Conklin questioned whether the club’s finances are as bad as they seem, given that the district is coming out of a pandemic year. That remains not altogether clear: the financial figures the district has presented over the past several months have fluctuated, especially when looking at their component parts–what membership dues generate, what summer camps generate, what users whose insurance pays for visits generate, and so on. “Because either we have a real serious financial issue, and if we do, we need to make sure we’re transparent with the community and share that information,” Conklin said. “It’s hard to make a decision like that without all of the information, or at least some scenarios of what it could generate or look like under each proposal.”
“I don’t think these numbers are reality,” Massaro said, more bluntly. “If we’re going to look at closing the program we need to look at the real numbers.”
How about raising the prices to cover the costs?
There needs to be a public pool in a better location. The City needs a YMCA! All this money wasted on Holland Park could have been put towards a YMCA that would have benefitted far more people.
Another white elephant in Flagler County. It seems like all entities in Flagler are very good at buying stuff that looses money.
When did the school board get into the real estate business? Stick to educating.
Michele G says
I was a Happy member of BTSRC, until they closed it and then reopened with restrictive hours of 8AM – 2 PM last year.
Something they never did since I joined the club in 2005, was send out renewal notices to members, which in my opinion is a good way to lose clients!
Also, I have not seen any information in the Palm Coaster flyer that gets sent with our water bill monthly, regarding membership, hours of operation or any other info regarding BTSRC. Only the pool where too many already belong.
If you want to remain viable, do something to gain some attention, not all this negative news. Who wants to spend $225 for a yearly membership, when you’re threatening to close in September?
I’d happily join again, if I knew what was going on there.