Politics & Government

City eyeing YMCA partnership for new aquatic complex

In the wake of Columbus Council’s negative reaction to the proposed $1.2 million annual subsidy of the city’s new natatorium, city leaders are planning to reopen discussions with the YMCA concerning a possiblepartnership in the venture.

In the early stages of planning the facility, the city approached the YMCA about playing a role in operating the natatorium, but that reportedly never got beyond the preliminary stage. Now, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson says she is working to set up meetings with top city officials and YMCA representatives “to examine all possibilities” of renewing that venture.

David Steele, president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Columbus, said earlier discussions with the city, before construction began on the natatorium, never got beyond the preliminary stage, but he would be willing to talk to city leaders about a possible partnership.

“We are open to discussing opportunities again,” Steele said. “We would certainly entertain the idea. We are always looking for ways to further the YMCA and looking for ways to help the community.”

Parks and Recreation Director James Worsley, whose department would otherwise be responsible for managing the facility, said he would welcome discussions about a partnership.

“Anybody who wants to come to the table to benefit the community, we should always be open to see how we can do things together,” Worsley said. “Whatever it’s going to take to make it a win-win situation for the citizens of Columbus, we must have as a top priority.”

At the same time, Worsley said even without a partnership, he would not expect the subsidy to remain at the proposed $1.2 million a year. Once the facility opens, is able to provide “good customer service” and develop a reputation, he expects it will begin to produce more revenue than the initial projections.

He points to the situation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, where he worked before coming to Columbus last year. There, when they opened a natatorium, it operated in the red at first, but eventually was able to operate in the black.

“They do turn a profit and do not receive a subsidy in terms of operating their aquatic center,” Worsley said. “They currently operate in the black, but that has not always been the case.”

The key, Worsley said, is developing a reputation as a venue that swim meets want to use.

“As a facility, we have to crawl before we can walk, so to speak. It’s going to take some time to build our reputation,” Worsley said. “When a business is new, you make sure you have good customer service, make sure you have good promotional opportunities and market the services well, and the people tend to come back for repeat business if they have a good experience. That’s the same philosophy we’re going to have to look toward when we open the aquatic facility.”

Tomlinson said that even if some level of subsidy remains for the natatorium, it would be just one of many such subsidies the Consolidated Government pays for civic amenities.

In the current fiscal 2012 budget, more than $1.5 million in subsidies were paid out of the general fund to venues such as the Civic Center/Ice Rink, Lake Oliver Marina, Cooper Creek Tennis Center, Bull Creek and Oxbow Creek golf courses, the Trade Center and Civil War Naval Museum, she said. Add in the $2.6 million that the Trade Center and Civic Center get from hotel/motel and beer taxes and the total of tax subsidies for city facilities totals over $4.1 million, she said.

There’s a reason, she said, that the private sector isn’t jumping in to develop such facilities. But there is a reason they are good public investments.

“None of them are independent profit centers,” Tomlinson said. “But you have to take into account their economic impact. How much sales tax is generated. How many heads are in beds (in hotels and motels) because of families coming into town to visit these facilities.”

All council was given in the natatorium business plan two weeks ago was what it will likely cost to operate the facility and a projection of what income will be generated by users, Tomlinson said.

“We have to look at it in a broader context,” she said, adding that she has asked Mike Gaymon, president of the Chamber of Commerce, and Peter Bowden, president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, to study the potential economic impact of the natatorium. “You need a community that has unique attractions or unique venues or unique experiences,” Bowden said.“Tourism is economic development. Products like the natatorium, the Civic Center, the RiverCenter, those are all bricks and mortar that drive the economic development of Columbus.”