The Columbus Aquatic Center has been a problem child for the city of Columbus since the natatorium was conceived in the late 1990s and delivered in 2013.
The $10.6 million center was a source of some controversy before its completion and continues to be a contentious complex for Columbus Council and other city leaders.
The aquatic center and the adjoining parking deck and City Services Center were part of a 2008 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax project. An earlier 1999 SPLOST originally called only for a new Olympic pool, but city leaders, with the vigorous encouragement of the local competitive swimming community, opted to upgrade to a full-scale aquatic center, with funding coming from both the 2008 and 1999 SPLOSTs.
Even as the aquatic center was under construction, newly hired Parks and Recreation Director James Worsley was telling city leaders they had not allocated enough money to operate the facility that he was soon to inherit.
In mid-2012, Worsley told Columbus Council that it would cost about $1.2 million to operate the center, which also has a diving area and a smaller therapeutic pool, along with locker facilities, a pro shop, concessions and seating for about 900 viewers.
Councilors were shocked at the numbers.
"That's a mighty big deficit, and frankly it's not one that we were led to believe that we'd be facing," Councilor Skip Henderson said at the time. "I'm a little in shock."
Worsley suggested that the city should not cut corners when unveiling such a facility.
"I would advise councilors that you want to start out the way you want to end up," Worsley said. "You don't want to under-budget or under-provide staff. This is going to be a jewel for Columbus, and we want to make sure that we have the ability to operate."
Today, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson says newcomer Worsley showed courage as a new hire standing up to council, but she defended their decision during a difficult budget time.
I’m hoping that we will have some very concrete numbers to look at and to work with, I’m also looking for some very concrete, logical suggestions from the administration on where we can go to get some of this money.
Columbus Councilor Judy Thomas
“To his credit, James came in and made a presentation right off the bat. He was brand new, and he said we have not quantified this correctly and it’s going to be $1.2 million,” Tomlinson said. “But we were all faced with some pretty tremendous budget challenges at that time.”
Councilors opted to and succeeded in seeking bids from private companies in an attempt to cut costs. They selected a company called USA Pools, which bid around $680,000 to operate the facility for 89 hours a week. Adding in $170,000 in utilities costs, the total package was about $850,000 — $350,000 less than Worsley’s estimate.
But USA Pools’ performance was far from what city leaders expected and, eventually, the company’s shortcomings were more than they would tolerate. After opening in August 2013 and under its management, the pools were closed several times for either too much or too little chlorine, and significant water temperature problems threatened to cancel meets.
Then a performance audit revealed numerous problems, such as the fact that numerous lifeguards and some instructors were not certified. So, in January 2015, the city canceled its contract with the company and turned the facility over to Parks and Rec, after a 90-day grace period required by the contract.
Parks and Rec has operated the facility since May 2015, finishing out two months of Fiscal 2015 and getting the same $850,000 budget that USA Pools would have gotten for Fiscal 2016.
Still faced with the same budget challenges, council asked the administration to put out a second search for bids from other companies.
Meanwhile, Worsley has been running the facility on a shoestring to keep it open for the full 89 hours. Two of his top administrators, Becky Glisson and Holly Browder, have been working 80-hour weeks performing their regular responsibilities and also keeping the aquatic center open, he’s told council.
And because some have predicted that the looming budget season may be the tightest in recent memory, some councilors have said Parks and Rec likely will have no more to offer for the next fiscal year.
Presented with that, Worsley reported to council that with an $850,000 budget, he could operate the facility for only 45 hours a week. For a shade over $1 million, he could keep it open for 56 hours, but the full 89 hours would cost taxpayers $1.24 million.
I don’t get a vote in it; it really is a council decision. But if I were a councilor, I actually believe that the most efficient way for it to be handled would be for parks and rec to hire an individual who has a great deal of experience in running natatoriums and programming for facilities of this type.
Mayor Teresa Tomlinson
Then the bids from the private sector came in. After months of searching and reviewing bids, city leaders chose one company to present to council. They refer to it as Company A, because the bidding process does not allow them to release the name of the company at this point.
Company A’s bid was very similar to Worsley’s. It said it would cost $1.27 million for 89 hours of service, $1.05 million for 56 hours and $820,000 for 45 hours.
Where the two plans differ most is in projected revenues. Company A projected $525,000 in revenue at 89 hours, $343,000 at 56 hours and about $220,000 at 45 hours. Parks and Rec’s projections were considerably lower: $250,000 at 89 hours, $196,000 at 56 hours and $156,000 at 45.
When asked by councilors to explain the disparity, City Manager Isaiah Hugley said that their numbers were based on the revenue that had been produced so far, but admitted that the numbers were intentionally conservative.
“We would rather under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around,” Hugley said.
So far, the center has not generated the amount of revenue the city had hoped, but some attribute that to the problems with the first vendor and the facility’s fledgling status.
But it has generated economic impact, said Peter Bowden, executive director of the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau, who said while the annual impact can’t yet be determined, the recent NAIA National Swimming and Diving meet generated about $565,000 in economic impact.
Swimming community speaks out
At that time, the public discussions of cutting back on pool hours brought the swimming community out in full force. At one recent council meeting, the council chambers were standing-room only for an aquatics center discussion.
The group appeared nearly unanimous on two things: They wanted the center to remain fully open, and they wanted Parks and Rec to remain in charge of the facility.
At that meeting, Councilor Judy Thomas praised the job that Worsley and his staff have done, and said she has gotten a lot of emails and phone calls to that effect.
“I don’t want anybody to get the idea that there’s any conflict between the swim community and our Parks and Rec department,” Thomas said. “They were very complimentary to the point that they said, ‘Don’t let those other people run it; let Parks and Rec run it. They’ve done a great job.’ ”
At that meeting, Worsley was told that whatever it took financially to keep the aquatic center fully open would have to come from his department. Worsley subsequently submitted a long list of potential cuts, which was not well received by councilors, who did not believe they were sufficiently informed on the consequences of the cuts.
All of that led to council calling a special work session on the aquatic center, to be held Tuesday at 9 a.m., when Thomas hopes to get the information she and her colleagues need to make a decision on how to fund the facility, to what extent to fund it, and who will operate it.
“I’m hoping that we will have some very concrete numbers to look at and to work with,” Thomas said. “I’m also looking for some very concrete, logical suggestions from the administration on where we can go to get some of this money.”
Thomas, who has lauded the job the Parks and Recreation Department has done in an interim capacity, said she is still open to using a private contractor.
“I think in either case it’s going to take some additional personnel,” Thomas said. “I like the idea of a private company if they are knowledgeable about this kind of operation. If we have a management company that is knowledgeable and is concerned about the swimmers, I think that would be OK with the swimming community.”
Jeff Pishko, coach of the Columbus Hurricanes, the city’s largest swim team, said the competitive swimming community was thrilled with Parks and Rec’s handling of the aquatic center after the USA Pools era, but that more and more people favor a return to the private sector.
“Parks and Rec did a great job taking over for USA Pools,” Pishko said. “But more people are leaning toward a third-party group for event planning and programming.”
Tomlinson said she would like to see Parks and Rec maintain control of the facility, but that it’s a legislative, not an executive, decision.
“I don’t get a vote in it; it really is a council decision,” Tomlinson said. “But if I were a councilor, I actually believe that the most efficient way for it to be handled would be for Parks and Rec to hire an individual who has a great deal of experience in running natatoriums and programming for facilities of this type.
“But it’s their decision to make, and I support whatever decision that is.”