It was Groundhog Day at the Flagler County School Board’s workshop last Tuesday.
That’s when the board discusses the fate of the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club. It does so periodically every few weeks, or months. It’s done so for years. The discussion points are always the same. Only the numbers change, but not the color: red. The club is losing money. The district is subsidizing it with revenue even its auditors say should not be used to that purpose. It’s doing so even though most of the people who use the facility, and they’re few, are not students.
School board members for years have been incapable of deciding what to do with the place. The club has a small, wrinkly but militant membership that year after year has staved off the district’s every attempt to divest itself of the money-loser. The membership has been like the comatose patient whose eyebrows seem to flicker just enough from time tom time to make it difficult for the presumably more sentient landlord to pull the plug. The patient’s latest lifeline is braided of three new school board members who appear unaware of the club’s relentlessly documented decline. They want to get up to speed. They’ve asked for more information, though they’re not alone.
Even Colleen Conklin, who’s been on the board almost as long as the district has owned the club, has been exasperated by a persistent lack of clarity in the numbers the numbers the district administration submits, though that, too, is due to the ceaseless turnover among those who’ve been put in charge of the province nobody wants: administrators, too, seem to need to bring themselves up to speed even as they make it quite clear–if not in so many words–that they’d love to be rid of Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club. (The Racquet part died a long time ago.)
“It’s very beneficial when we’re having any of these conversations to have all the details, all the information in front of us,” Conklin said, “because it’s just not helpful when we don’t have all the details or information. And then it leads to additional questions and we are right back to where we started. Even the laundry list of what we’re going to have to fix and address, it’s not in the presentation. We have no idea what’s in the operating budget.”
Conklin doubted the Belle Terre club community was even aware that the club’s fate was to be discussed on Tuesday. “So I just feel like when we look at a big red number that says 169 as a loss, we don’t have all the information to even show that, and what that means.”
So the Belle Terre club endures.
The district tried and failed to find viable uses for the site. Leasing the facility is not an option under current rules. Bringing in a YMCA hasn’t worked. Seducing a private company to buy it hasn’t worked (one prospective buyer wanted a road pierced from there to Belle Terre Parkway). This year the district tried to get Palm Coast and Flagler County to each pay $50,000 to keep it going. They’re not interested. Last year there was a pretty elaborate plan floated to turn the grounds to multi-purpose uses for various district programs. The architect of that plan was soon exiled to an elementary school principalship.
The district has been reluctant to give up on the facility entirely, because it’s in the heart of the city, it’s a unique combination of swimming pool and fitness center (unique for Flagler), it was gifted to the district free and clear in the 1990s, and it has that affective history that users get all misty for. It also is the home of Flagler Palm Coast High’s swimming team, that of the successful Synchro Belles and a few other clubs. As a government facility with a municipal pool, it would be ideal. But Palm Coast’s “Aquatic Center” a splash’s distance away does that already.
Here are the latest numbers: the club is expected to run a deficit of $169,000 this year. It has a paid membership of just 90–82 adults and eight students, a dismal total and a significant decrease from pre-Covid days. The monthly membership is $47, the annual membership is $300.
In a calendar year, the facility will generate some additional revenue from insurers, whose members use the club either to swim or to work out at the gym (hence the healthy militancy despite the wrinkles). There were 713 such users in the last full year analyzed. But they pay on a per-use basis, a few dollars each time. They count as users whether they’re there once a year or once a week, but the club can’t depend on them to fill the deficit.
To Board member Will Furry, those insurance clients could be one potential source of greater revenue. He suggested an “add-on” membership for those who use the club through their insurance, if they want to use the pool. The district would have to renegotiate those agreements with insurers.
That’s a possibility “if we can negotiate with our insurance companies,” Dave Freeman, the district’s facilities director, said. “I’m not sure that we can.” The district is not likely to be more successful re-negotiating those insurance contract than a patient negotiating the out-of-pocket cost of an MRI.
Meanwhile the parking lot needs to be repaved, the bathhouse needed heavy work, the tennis courts, which are barely used, need work, AC units need to be replaced, the locker room is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and so on. “So in the next three to five years, we could expect to spend about a little over $400,000 just maintaining this facility,” Freeman said. “This site does not meet our goal, goal five in our strategic plan, which is maintaining operational efficiency.”
Just to make sure that board members were getting the message, he said: “We’re not going to operate in the black. We’re going to be continued to operate in the red. So we come to the board to seek guidance on how we should move forward in the in the future.” He did not get that guidance beyond calls for more and clearer information–exact rental revenue, the operational budget, the capital budget, average daily use, and what cost all that comes out to, per user.
The only way that the club has stayed afloat is because it’s been subsidized by revenue from the district’s extended day program–the child-care like program in the morning and after school for younger students. Board member Sally Hunt wondered where the money now being spent on Belle Terre would be used in the district. Freeman said it would be reinvested in extended day, for starters, and on other projects that are being delayed because of Belle Terre spending.
But Furry seemed to have no illusions, either. Toward the end of the latest endless discussion on the matter, he seemed to be channeling Trevor Tucker, the former school board member who’d said in one of those discussions that if the club kept losing money, it had to be ended: “There’s a lot of people that really love this facility,” Furry said. “But when when we’re looking at $169,000 deficit and taking money from another program to pay for it, and then the thing that we’re going to throw another $400,000 at an operation that’s running at $169,000 deficit, it just doesn’t seem very fiscally prudent to do something like that. But at the same time, we want to, if it’s viable, we’d like to keep going. It’s definitely been a part of the history of this of this city and this county. But we got to remember this is about the students first.”
Hunt said she’d put “all options on the table,” lining herself up with Furry. Conklin and Massaro are closer to the militants’ hearts. Christy Chong, one of the three new board members, channeled Clarence Thomas: she said nothing, just as she had during an equally long discussion in the same workshop on arming civilians in schools.
The unspoken secret of the club–and the district–however, is that the district cannot have it both ways: It doesn’t want to lose the facility, because it still serves its students. But it cannot keep the facility, even for the exclusive benefit of students and staff, and not face steep operating costs. In that sense, it’s the paltry membership and those insurance day users who are really subsidizing the district’s facility, which would otherwise be left bearing Belle Terre’s costs alone–unless it closed it altogether. That’s not an option for now.
And that may well be why there could yet be more groundhog days ahead.