Water park dream lives

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This town’s in a pickle of a swimming pool situation. The City Commission wrestled again last week with the question of what to do with the East Frankfort Park pool, closed four years ago because of recurrent leaks that defied repair. An insurance agent recommended filling and covering the dry hole to head off a lawsuit waiting to happen, but some are reluctant to give up on the possibility of reopening the facility at some point. The city’s other pool, across town in Juniper Hill Park, is in better shape but probably running out of time, too. If it were a person, it’d be old enough to qualify for a senior discount at some business places.
In 2006, a time of relative optimism, the solution seemed obvious – close both pools and replace them with a sparkling new aquatic center like those some other communities in this area already have. These attractions, inspired by the water parks found in tourist destinations, create excitement by moving water around in myriad ways that make conventional swimming pools look old hat. For a few million dollars, you’d get a “Lazy River,” a shallow “zero-entry” area for small children and the elderly, a fountain-based playground, a collection of water slides and places of repose to suit sun worshipers and shade lovers alike.
Then-Parks and Recreation Director Steve Brooks confidently anticipated such a development could open for business the following year. Consultant Branstetter Carroll Inc. projected an aquatic center, charging admission of $5 a head, could produce a yearly surplus of nearly $90,000.
But instead of delivering a new recreational complex, 2007 marked the onset of the Great Recession, which led both private and public enterprise to put big ambitions on the shelf. The new reality caused some local officials to take a less sanguine view of another multi-million-dollar expenditure at the same time the city was still paying off the debt on its Public Safety Facility, inflated to more than $10 million because of cost overruns.
President Obama’s federal stimulus program stirred a flicker of hope but then came a splash of cold water from Vice President Joe Biden, who advised municipal officials at a Washington spending conference not to pursue stimulus funds for recreation projects that taxpayers might regard as frivolous ventures.
Prospects dimmed further when Frankfort’s biggest employer, state government, froze hiring and employee raises and thus sapped the city’s occupational tax revenue. An elaborate water playground seemed an ever more impossible dream. The city’s reserves dropped to $7.1 million in 2008, raising questions about the feasibility of any project requiring bonded indebtedness. A surplus lower than $8 million, Finance Director Steve Dawson recently warned, might endanger Frankfort’s favorable bond rating and raise the cost of borrowing.
Despite all the setbacks, discussions of a local aquatic center have begun to revive. City Commissioner and former three-term Mayor Bill May, announcing he’d run for the top city office again, included the park in a list of projects he’d like to explore in a fourth mayoral term –  while soberly reminding us the city has to live within its means.
At least the topic is back on the table. Moving it into the realm of feasibility is a bigger test of political will and fiscal capability.

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