From one perspective, the future of the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club keeps looking dimmer, its deficit unrelenting, the likelihood of steeply increased membership fees looming, and little to no interest from other government agencies to help beyond what one of them–the county–is doing now.
From another perspective, the club may yet have another savior: Gustavo Calado, owner of Planet Swim, a Ponte Vedra-based for profit offering services very similar to the Swim and Racquet Club, is interested in the property–either to take it over, or to run it in partnership with the district. But those talks are at the preliminary stage. There are no commitments.
And that hope rests on what may be an easement in the form of a Hail Mary pass: Calado is exploring the possibility of cutting a direct road from Belle Terre Parkway to the Swim and Racquet Club, which sits in the interior center of the Parkview Drive loop.
Earl Johnson, who’s in charge of community and student engagement, Facilities Director Dave Freeman and Renee Stauffacher, who runs the district’s adult education division that oversees the Swim and Racquet Club, on April 8 met with Calado.
“He has worked to either help build or takeover or run several aquatic centers in the area and the region,” Stauffacher told the school board at a workshop Tuesday.
Colado proposed three options for the school board to consider: Take over outright ownership of the Swim and Racquet Club, lease the property from the school district and take over all operations, or establish a partnership with the district, leaving the district to continue to maintain the grounds and the capital projects. In other words, the third option would have the district act as landlord, responsible for landlord upkeep and repairs.
“Regardless of which way we went, if we went that way to support his plan, he would need to invest about $3 to $5 million,” Stauffacher said, “which would include the building of an additional pool where the tennis courts are currently located.” That also means the elimination of those swimming pools, which according to Swim and Racquet figures, are generating very little use. Palm Coast government, on the other hand, is preparing to vastly expand its Tennis Center not far off.
Calado would expect that his operation at the Swim and Racquet Club would generate its own significant traffic, to the point of drawing users by the busload. “He does have a concern, however, regarding traffic and the large charter-style buses that would be running through the residential neighborhood,” Stauffacher said. “So as a next step, he is going to get with the City of Palm Coast, and look at the ability to put an access road from Belle Terre Parkway directly into the swim and Racquet Club through an easement that’s owned by the city. So that is his next step of action and we expect for him to get back to us shortly.”
Only one meeting has taken place between Calado and the district. But it is already clear from Stauffacher’s perspective that the success of any such talks “will absolutely depend on whether or not they can get that access road from Belle Terre Parkway directly into the Swim and Racquet Club. Our take from the meeting, and the summary of that is if that cannot happen, then it does not appear he’s interested.”
But such an easement, if it was even feasible from an engineering perspective–the only possible routes would parallel canals, making them even less likely–would almost certainly trigger howls of protests from that segment of the P-Section anyway: the Palm Coast City Council is subjected to such howls even when it closes minuscule and out of the way roads, making the proposition politically tenuous.
“I don’t think he even understood the limitations of that site, compared to the other sites that he has resurrected and invested in,” School Board member Janet McDonald said of Calado, with whom she’d spoken at the club.
Jason deLorenzo, the city’s development director, confirmed that there’d been no contact between Colado and the city’s parks and recreations department, engineering or Community Development. He was also skeptical of the road idea: “I don’t see a direct connection to Belle Terre being viable as there is a storm water facility that runs through that area,” DeLorenzo said.
Meanwhile the district is considering a few capital improvements this year at the club: some electrical work, the replacement of a water heater and some painting, along with other waterworks, all of it amounting to less than $25,000. Next year the district would remove a portable, replace heating and air units (assuming they stop functioning, and repair the parking lot and remove trees whose roots keep buckling the lot, for $80,000. The cost of resurfacing the tennis courts would run to $50,000, but that project is tenuous, considering usage and the district’s hopes for a partnership with Planet Swim.
Those costs come at a difficult time for the club, as the school board learned this year–and keeps relearning, month after month, as new financial numbers are submitted.
The Swim and Racquet Club revenue is running 60 to 62 percent of budgeted costs, with losses at the end of March at $95,000, up from $89,000 in February. “So we are trending in the wrong direction and we are continuing to see losses, as we go through each fiscal year those losses are getting bigger,” Patty Wormeck, the district’s finance director, says. Summer-camp revenue is expected to make up some of that loss in June and July, but expected losses for the year are projected at $168,000.
That loss is not necessarily attributable to covid, Wormeck said. “The programs that have taken a hit due to COVID have been able to adjust their cost. They have also been able to supplement some of their revenues with some CARES grants,” Wormeck said. For example, if covid reduces VPK’s enrollment, the program can adjust, laying off staff accordingly. (VPK is run out of the district’s adult education division, which also oversees the Swim and Racquet Club). If the club’s pool is open, “you’re always going to need a lifeguard, you’re always going to need those as-needed people so we continue to incur costs at a greater rate than we can get in gym fees.”
Based on those numbers and capital needs ahead, Stauffacher said, “we would have to increase membership fees significantly in order to sustain the club ourselves, which would require a vote of the fee schedule by the board.” Currently, a family membership is $225 per adult, with children up to age 12 getting in free as part of that membership, as long as they’re accompanied by an adult. Annual membership for students 13 to 21 is $125. The monthly rate is $35 per adult or student, the daily rate is $4.
Based on Stauffacher’s research, the average rate for clubs like Belle Terre was $412 per year, she said. “So, initially looking at if we raised that to $375 per year, we still would be nowhere close to being able to meet our capital needs for the Racquet Club,” Stauffacher said. “It would have to be [substantially] more than that or an assessment fee of some kind.” And with it, operating needs would be met, but not so capital needs.
Keep in mind: today’s fees are half what they were in 2009, when a family membership was $564, monthly fees were $90, and monthly student fees were $69. Single-day admission was $8. See the 2009 fee schedule here. The club has lowered fees over the years to stimulate membership. Rising fees again may have the opposite effect.
Membership numbers are creeping back up, now that people are getting vaccinated. Assuming all current 200 members continued and membership costs were increased, the club could see increased revenue of $30,000 per year, Stauffacher said.
The board had directed Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt to have conversations with other government agencies. She arranged a meeting with five entities. Two showed up, one of them county government, which already contributes $25,000 a year to the club and has been doing so since the middle of the last decade, when the club last passed the hat in hopes of surviving. The county is not interested in increasing its contribution, the superintendent said. Palm Coast didn’t show up. The only other government that did was Flagler Beach, which has its own rather large swimming park along its east end.
“Other than that it’s been silence.” Mittelstadt said. “I think that kind of speaks to, perhaps their potential involvement moving forward in terms of what they could do to support the school board.”
Palm Coast isn’t likely to underwrite anything at Belle Terre Swim and Racquet since it is about to launch its expansion at the Tennis Center–and is facing a simmer of criticism over the ambitiousness of that plan. The simmer is not limited to Palm Coast meetings: School Board member Janet McDonald, in what would surely not help the school district’s case with Palm Coast, took a pot shot at the city’s plan on Tuesday, mischaracterizing it as the city wanting to “invest $17 million into a pickleball extravaganza” based on a survey of “130 some odd people who responded to the survey that they were interested in pickleball.” The plan is more nuanced and varied.
Still, McDonald said part of the responsibility rests on the city. “I appreciate that you reached out to our other city and county boards, and yet to have them not participate in the board that has the most important service for this community,” McDonald said, “I think it’s really important that we have our Palm Coast community members really reach out and implore the county council or the city council to relook at their obligation.” She said the city closes its pool several months a year to save money, shifting usage to the school board’s facility. “We don’t get funding for that, and they have taxing ability, they have utility funds, they have lots of funds that they’re moving around to do these recreation opportunities–a splash park, the regeneration of all their other parks. They could even expand their use of their pool, or even outfit it differently so they could have it year round with heating and all of that.” (McDonald was inaccurate regarding utility funds, which are not being spent–and may not be spent–on recreation, and appeared to be unaware of the city’s numerous recreation programs for children and adults.) McDonald said Swim and Racquet Club members should put pressure on the city to do its part.
The city’s subsidizing of the racquet club would also be politically hazardous since the city runs its own aquatic center almost within throwing distance of the Swim and Racquet Club, behind Wadsworth Elementary School.