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Whitewater aquatic center wading in financial trouble

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Kayla Bunge
April 10, 2010
— The Whitewater Aquatic & Fitness Center is losing about $100,000 a year, and at least one official says the facility could be forced to shut down if things don’t turn around.

“We don’t have any sugar daddies who are going to throw that much money our way each year,” said Thayer Coburn, president of the aquatic center board.


The center, which opened in 2001, is jointly funded by the city and school district. Revenues and donations support it.


Mercy Health System ran the center for 5 1/2 years but ended its contract because it was losing almost a quarter of a million dollars a year. Mercy Vice President Ralph Topinka told the Gazette in December 2008 the center’s operation “wasn’t the financial success we hoped it to be.”


The aquatic center board took back control of the facility, hired a director and cut the deficit from $250,000 to $100,000. But it still was losing money.


“We have no taxing authority,” Coburn said. “We have limited resources.”


The center receives $75,000 annually from the city and school district, receiving the city payment in January and the school payment in July. The center generates some revenue from memberships, day passes and rentals.


“We cut over $225,000 out of our costs last year, but still because there’s only so much we can do, we need to discuss what happens next,” Coburn said.


The 36,000-square-foot center is attached to Whitewater High School, 580 S. Elizabeth St. It includes a lap pool, leisure pool and exercise room and offers swimming lessons and group fitness classes.


The biggest expenses come from filling the pools with water, keeping the water warm and keeping the lights on, Coburn said.


“Utilities are killing us,” he said, noting annual electricity and heat costs are about $230,000, and water cost are about $20,000.


The center board would like to install equipment to increase energy efficiency and cut utility costs, but the equipment is expensive. The board is looking at switching from chlorine to ultraviolet light to clean water—a $75,000 project—and installing a heat recovery system—a $150,000 project.


“Those are two projects we just cannot fund ourselves,” Coburn said.


The center also is facing a cash crunch: It has almost exhausted the city’s January payment and had to pay a couple thousand dollars to clean and refill a spa that filled with carbon after a municipal water filter blew Monday.


The school district agreed to move its payment from July 1 to yesterday to help.


“It’s the shot in the arm we need and it’ll get us through to fall, when we really start seeing our revenues pick up,” Coburn said.


The board met last week with the city and the school district. Along with the financial troubles, discussion focused on asking for more financial support and a commitment to making capital improvements that could save the center a significant amount of money.


“Putting (those investments) into the center can save us the need to increase the contributions from the city and the school district,” Coburn said.


The city and school district indicated they were interested in helping, but the board needs a formal response from each entity by its April 15 meeting, he said.


“There’s no point to this temporary cash flow lifeline if we’re not all committed to making big gestures toward cutting our utility costs,” Coburn said. “That’s the only way we’re going to move the discussion from staying open through the fall to staying open for next five, 10, 20 years.


“The center is an important community resource,” he said. “It would be a shame if we couldn’t figure out a way to keep this place going for a long time.”



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