The Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club is dying a painfully public death. Absent a savior in the form of a buyer or a lessor, the club will soon be history, at least as a public facility. The club owned and run by the Flagler County School Board, is the victim of a rapidly changing city and county where it once was the only fitness option in town, and now is one of dozens, and among its least desirable, judging from memberships. The location of Palm Coast’s Frieda Zamba pool less than a mile away is no help to Belle Terre’s bottom line, either.
The school board earlier this week agreed to put out a request for proposal for interested parties that may want to run the facility. But it’s a last-ditch effort to save the club, and show the community that the board has made every attempt to keep the club going. It’s also very unlikely that the effort will produce a viable savior, since it’s been no secret that the board has been looking for one.
“Nobody wants to see anybody hurt,” Superintendent Jacob Oliva said on Tuesday. “We all understand that we have the pool. And we want to make it work for everybody involved. What we’re saying is that we cannot be tasked with running and operating the pool. If we can find someone that can make that work—we get so many people who say just give it to the county, give it to the city, give it to another entity. We’re willing to sit down and meet with anybody that wants to maintain the day to day operations.”
If you’d like to know what will likely happen next with the club, just recall the fate of the board’s massive Corporate Plaza building, which is slated for demolition in the next few months.
The building had been headquarters to the district’s adult and community education operations—which happen to run the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club, among many other programs. The building had become so worn with age that last year it was condemned, at least as an educational facility. Its needed repairs would have been in the millions of dollars, money the district does not have.
After agonizing discussions, the board agreed to put the building up for sale. There were no interested buyers. So it will be demolished, and the board will hold on to the land, which is more valuable than the building anyway and won’t cost the district $70,000 a year to maintain.
The board is now going through the same steps with the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club. The facility lost $137,000 this year. The district cannot sustain those losses. It has tried to convince the Volusia Flagler YMCA to take over and lease the property, running it as a club. Months of discussions finally ended with the YMCA insisting that absent a $200,000 investment in the facility for upgrades, it would not take over.
Superintendent Jacob Oliva next met with the city managers of every city in Flagler, and the county administrator, hoping to draft their help in shoring up the club. But the managers were adamant. “Every one of them agreed that we should not be in recreation, that they need to own that,” Oliva said. “And honestly everybody should be thanking this board for finding ways to sustain this club for as many years as it has.”
So he proposed a formal request for proposal, a bidding process, that’ll be out for 30 days. But Oliva couldn’t be more clear: “We cannot operate and maintain the pool. We don’t have the dollars to do it.”
The district’s main concern is to ensure a place for high school swimmers to swim, and for the Synchro Belles, the synchronized swimming program, to practice.
If a savior is not found by fall, the school board has no money to keep the facility going at a rate of $24,000 a month.
As of Sept. 7, pool hours will be restricted in such a way that students have first priority.
Several members of the public addressed board members Tuesday, mostly in opposition to plans that would shutter the club. “I’ve never seen such fighting between the seniors and the school board,” one man said. “You’ve got to find some reason or some way to keep the Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club open.” A veteran noted that many members at the club are veterans themselves—in good shape in part because of the facility’s amenities. A member of the club said the facility is serving the community beyond its members—as with the Synchro Belles, the synchronized swimming team. (But the Synchro Belles is the only team that has used the facility.) The president of the Synchro Belles addressed the board, encouraging members to work on a solution with the Belles should the facility be closed. “Please give us direction for the Belles that we have a place to swim,” he said.
CarMichael McMillan, who manages a Swip-Swap page on Facebook and has led a grass-roots campaign against red-light cameras, urged the board to give it more time. He’s spearheading a proposal to take the facility “back to profitability,” but through two non-starters, as far as the school board is concerned: building the club’s membership again (even as it has been dwindling, because of fierce competition from cheaper and more streamlined health clubs in town), and getting the county and Palm Coast to contribute money to shore up the club meanwhile. The county and the city are not, as Oliva noted, interested.
“This is the beginning of a larger conversation that has needed to happen for some time,” Colleen Conklin, who chairs the school board, said, referring to the county and the city’s need for a larger aquatic center that answers the need of the entire community. Palm Coast government has just such an aquatic center in its long-range development plan, but it’s on a very distant horizon. “I’m interested to see at the end of the 30-day process the kinds of RFPs that come in and what kind of involvement the community wants.”
People can bid on the entire site, they can bid on renting just one or both the buildings on the site, at around $16 a square foot. The lease would start at one to five years and would be renewable. The figures are negotiable, and the students’ time for use of the facility has not been figured into the RFP. “If someone were to come in and say they wanted to use the pool,” School Board attorney Kristy Gavin said, “then the lease agreement would be with a stipulation and that would be contained within the lease agreement, the terms would be that K-12 takes priority and has precedence over the pool. The hours would be determined by the district of when it was needed.”
It was left up to board member Trevor Tucker, the board’s financial stickler, to remind his colleagues that the decision regarding the club’s future must also be made should the RFP yield no viable offers. Board members did their best to avoid that discussion just yet. Tucker wanted the facility closed to members on Sept. 7, to stop losses. “If a group comes forward to lease that facility, great. But we have to have a drop-dead time,” Tucker said. “If we just say, all right, we’re going to continue operating this without any drop-dead time, this will go on forever, and that, I have a problem with, because we’re losing revenue. We don’t have the money. Adult-community education right now is really stressed financially. This doesn’t make financial sense. So I want a drop-dead date that this is the end of the time time that we’re going to continue to operate Belle Terre Swim and Racquet Club.” Board member Sue Dickinson agreed with the approach, citing the corporate plaza building as an example of “throwing money into a hole” month after month before a final decision was made.
The district’s cost to run the pool is $24,000 a month, not including the district’s debt-servicing.
Conklin considered the Tucker proposal ill-timed. She wants the RFP process to run its course first. That would be late October to early November, with the possibility of a special meeting to review the proposals.
“I just personally, two months, to do it right, I don’t have an issue with that,” Conklin said.
“Well I have an issue with you saying do it right, Ms. Conklin, that wasn’t a necessary statement, because doing right is for the kids, not for the adults, but that’s OK,” Dickinson said. That provoked a howl of protest from the audience, prompting Conklin to intervene to quiet the crowd.
Tucker’s motion failed.