Budget cuts may leave Legion pool in the dry

Gary B. Gray • May 29, 2014 at 4:01 PM

Is this the final call for “cannon ball!!” at Legion Street Pool, the city’s splashy mainstay?

Though Roger Blakeley, Johnson City Parks and Recreation director said he would rather not see the pool disappear, he also said the financial reality of the situation has become very hard to avoid.

“Last year we brought in a little more than $17,000 in revenue,” Blakeley said. “It costs us from $72,000 to $78,000 a year to operate. It’s a $62,000 to $64,000 deficit every time we open the door. But it’s really the commissioners’ decision.”

There are outdoor pools and water parks at various locations in the Tri-Cities, but Kingsport’s Legion Municipal Pool recently closed. Various YMCAs offer swimming, as does Freedom Hall. Jonesborough’s Wetlands Water Park features water activities, including three flume slides, water bubblers, tumble buckets, a wading area and a children’s otter slide. Still, Legion Street, built in 1959, remains the lone, public outdoor pool in Johnson City.

“Is it a benefit to the community — sure it is,” Blakeley said. “But the fire, police and other departments are no different than the Parks and Recreation Department — we had to come in and say, ‘OK, we’re not playing around here.’ I think this is part of a bigger public discussion about what will eventually happen.”

The adjoining Legion Street Recreation Center offers sporting and other opportunities, though the massive Memorial Park Community Center dwarfs the prior in size and offerings. The $15 million center anchors the 25-acre Memorial Park Community Campus, which includes the pool, recreation center, Cardinal Park and United States Post Office facility, which the city leases to the federal government.

It’s no secret the entire 25 acres has been seriously considered for eventual public use.

The center was the first phase of the campus. That was followed by construction of a new plaza honoring veterans with the famous Doughboy as its centerpiece, as well as concrete walkways and other amenities.

New construction also brought a 350-seat amphitheater accessible from the plaza, lots of green space, fencing and concrete walkways that guide visitors not only around the park but also to and from its features. New red brick columns connected by black, decorative wrought iron now run along East Main, Bert Street and a walkway between the park and the Johnson City post office. Extensive repairs also were made to Cardinal Park, including about $225,000 in streetscape renovations outside the ball field.

That said, it becomes fairly obvious the “new” is pushing the “old” into a corner. And in this case, the old is not bringing in sufficient revenue to warrant continued use.

“No,” said City Commissioner David Tomita, when asked if the pool was on its way out.

Tomita, also a Washington County commissioner, is but one of five who ultimately will make that decision, and city commissioners have been meticulously raking through departmental budget proposals in an effort to determine what, if anything, needs to stay or go.

Tomita said the pool is not without its needs and challenges. It is on the tentative “cut list,” but there’s a long way to go before shutting down the public recreation spot becomes a reality.

“That’s my opinion,” he said. “There have been no decisions so far on any items proposed to be cut. This is going to be a very tough year. Personally, I’d like to see cuts in things a little less sensitive. I will do everything possible before voting for a (property) tax increase, and there are meaningful reductions that will be made that don’t get a lot of press. Do we close down the pool, or do we let a middle management position go?”

City Manager Pete Peterson was not immediately available for comment, but Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl said operations and maintenance costs run the city about $62,000 a year. Stahl said commissioners have not proposed other uses for the area at the corner of Legion and East Main streets — at least not during this budget cycle.

Legion Street Pool is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, has a 200-person capacity and plays host to pool parties and a notable city event.

The pool is transformed into a fishing hole for a free community event the first weekend after the first full week of October each year called “Say Yes to Fishing, Say No to Drugs.” The pool is stocked with more than 2,000 rainbow trout that are up for grabs over the weekend.

The event kicks off with a by-invitation-only special needs night Friday, then opens to all youth in the community. The long-running event was started as a way get area youths involved in a fun, wholesome activity, as an alternative to drugs.

Like Gary B. Gray on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pages/Gary-B-Gray. Follow him on Twitter @ggrayjcpress.

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