The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, with scaled-back hours—and no hours on Sundays—has until Jan. 19 to secure 400 annual memberships valued at $200 each, for a total of $80,000. It currently has about a third that number. If the 400 membership aren’t signed by then, the school board intends to close the facility to the public.
As difficult as it was the school board and members of a large audience to make sense of the future direction of the club, that was largely Superintendent Jacob Oliva’s recommendation to the Flagler County School Board Tuesday evening, with the drop-dead date added by some board members. It gave club members some hope. But it left many others either disappointed or leery, including some board members and particularly leaders of a soccer academy who sought to take over and manage the facility for their growing program.
The board voted 3-2 in favor of that approach, a divided vote that reflected the fuzziness of the approach and the many questions left unanswered.
The decision, taken just after 8 p.m. after 90 minutes of debate, does not preclude the district from still seeking a viable alternative, including finding an organization that could run the facility, as long as the proposal pays for itself.
Pro Sports Pathways’ Center of Excellence had pitched just such a proposal to take over the club, preserve and increase the membership, and erase the district’s deficit there, with lease payments and, the academy claimed, more state education dollars for the district. Those dollars would have been drawn down by enrolling many of the academy’s home-schooled students in iFlagler, the district’s online school.
But Pro Sports did not figure in the recommendation. Some of its members said it was as a result of the district’s “grudge,” dating back from when Pro Sports declined to partner with the district when the district made the offer about a year ago, as the partnership would have compromised or constrained the freedoms the home-schooled students in the academy enjoy.
Three board members wanted a drop-dead date for a decision, two others wanted to give the club longer to meet its benchmark.
Oliva said Pro Sports was not out of the equation: it could still be a viable option, particularly if the school board gave him, as part of Belle Terre’s new direction, the responsibility to still seek an entity that could operate the facility. If, for example, the current arrangement failed to meet the January benchmark of 400 memberships, then Pro Sports could be among the alternative options. But Oliva made those statements in a brief interview after the workshop, before the business meeting. The board members had heard only of the recommendation for a “last-ditch effort” (in Oliva’s words) to give the membership a chance to take more ownership of the facility.
That approach would rely on the newly formed Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club Advisory Committee to shoulder much of the burden to produce the new memberships.
The pool would be open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It would be closed Sundays. The gym would be open from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. It would be closed Sundays.
With those hours, the facility would incur $71,000 in personnel costs and $119,000 in operating costs, not including $54,000 in debt-servicing. Memberships would provide $80,000, the rest would be generated through daily user fees, which the district expects could add up to $50,000 a year, and $65,000 through the Silver Sneakers program, an insurance program that subsidizes users of the facility.
School Board member Janet McDonald was not convinced by the new approach. “As hopeful as we all are I didn’t hear any hard numbers and that concerns me,” McDonald said. “I know we had a drop-dead date of today for a decision and we were supposed to get some hard numbers. So much as I’d like to say this sounds wonderful, everything we’ve heard sounds wonderful.” But, she said, there hasn’t been enough of a follow-through from the community to assure the board that the optimism can translate into viable numbers.
Board member Sue Dickinson was even more doubtful about the approach. “Sure we might have had the numbers in the past but we don’t know that those numbers are going to be there for us,” Dickinson said.
But Oliva’s proposal had stronger support from Colleen Conklin, who chairs the board, and Andy Dance, who saw the debate over the future of the club as productive in itself: it created a new relationship between the district and the club’s membership. He was also reassuring to the Pro Sports crowd, calling it—and its home-schooled students—“a market we have not tapped.” He said the process illuminated “possible relationships with people we haven’t had relationships with before.” In that sense, he said, Pro Sports “could be part of the solution.”
“Not everybody is going to leave happy tonight, that’s the way the process is going to work,” board member Andy Dance said. He couldn’t see any reason why Pro Sports couldn’t use the facility in various ways, even if it weren’t running it. “I would hope we would have a dialogue about being inclusive with your group at the facility.” Dance even proposed that the sports academy could move its operations into the Belle Terre grounds through a use-of-facilities agreement “and give your students even more access to recreation opportunities and make them well-rounded.”
Dance added: “Unfortunately we’ve got two camps, and somebody is not going to be happy, so my hope is that whichever way it goes whoever is not happy will stick around” and not hold the decision against the board.
Conklin had favored giving the club until March to meet its 400-member benchmark. She was getting no support for that from a majority of the board members. She then cautioned against constantly telegraphing to the community that the club could be closing at any time—a message, she said, that works against the district’s efforts to keep the club open.
She was also concerned about portraying the board’s decision as favoring one group over another. “There is no reason in the world why there can’t be a conversation about adding opportunity to that facility, at all,” Conklin said, hoping to broaden the facility’s appeal to the Pro Sports group. “No group is winning over another group tonight.” She added: “When I see this proposal tonight I don’t see it locking out any nother group from participating.”
Parents and supporters of the academy had made their presence felt during the public participation period. “You had one solution and you excluded all others,” Ed Bice, the parent of two children in the academy and a daughter at Flagler Palm Coast High School, said. He said he was “concerned” about the way the board was spending money.
“I wouldn’t want to explain to the voters why we didn’t make this very smart economic decision” a local business owner told the school board in support of the academy, even though she has no children in the program.
“I’ve been a little bit disappointed over the last weeks and months over the process” involving Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, Ryan Maloney, director of Pro Sports, said. “I don’t see why this place shouldn’t be reinvigorated and a successful facility. I genuinely believe we could provide that.” For nine months, he said, the organization had been looking for a bigger facility than the former bank it’s been operating from in the Palm Harbor shopping area.