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As Municipal Pool Languishes, Hartford’s Upper Valley Aquatic Center Flourishes

  • Karen Cox, director of the UVAC swim school, talks with Ian Keifer, 8, of White River Junction, a young member of the facility's swim team at the pool in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, June 18, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A family arrives at the Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, June 18, 2018. The swimming and fitness facility opened in 2009.(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rich Synnott is Executive Director of the Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, June 18, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Swim instructor Corinne Scoppe shows her students, Stephen and Elizabeth Fowler, of State College, Penn., proper technique for gliding through the water after pushing off the wall of the pool at the Upper Valley Aquatic Center in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, June 18, 2018. The Fowlers are getting swim lessons at UVAC while visiting their grandmother Linda Fowler in Hanover. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Counselor-in-training Sofia Amaro hangs up towels and swim suits of participants in the UVAC Splash Camp in White River Junction, Vt., Monday, June 18, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • About 100 eager children at poolside squirmed to get into the swim of things in White River Junction, Vt., on June 24, 1967, as Hartford town officials and invited guests dedicated the new $97,000 pool. (Valley News - Larry McDonald) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, July 14, 2018

Hartford — The town of Hartford owns two swim centers.

Near the intersection of interstates 89 and 91 is the Upper Valley Aquatic Center, a modern indoor facility that caters to competitive swimmers, people who want to relax in warm water and adults seeking fitness-focused activities.

A 10-minute drive away, right next to Hartford High School, sit the Sherman Manning pools, a crumbling outdoor complex that for four decades has provided hot weather cool-downs and recreation to families and children in its full-size pool and wading pool.

While both facilities are owned by the town, their current circumstances differ greatly.

Most days at the Aquatic Center, hundreds of members and visitors train for future swim meets, work out in the water or with modern exercise equipment, participate in classes or group activities or splash around.

But the Manning pool — officially referred to as “Pools” but generally regarded as one pool — sits empty and unused this summer, awaiting the town’s decision on whether to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on needed repairs or shutter it permanently.

That the Aquatic Center is open and the Manning pool is closed reflects the different and separate financial arrangements that support the two facilities.

At the Aquatic Center, which opened in 2009 and is operated by a nonprofit foundation, private donors have over the years contributed more than $27 million to build the 45,000-square-foot facility and subsidize its operations and repairs.

In addition, the facility gets an annual six-figure break on property taxes (about $192,000 in the current tax year, according to town officials) and gets a boost to its revenue most years from an endowment now valued at $7 million.

Those financial props are crucial, according to Richard Synnott, who has been the Aquatic Center’s executive director since 2011. “The facility would never be able to operate if it had to pay taxes or if it didn’t have the endowment to cover some of the operating losses,” he said.

By comparison, the Manning pool, which the town operates and funds, is a poor relation. It is a “1970 vintage” facility where revenue and use have slumped in recent years, according to a December presentation by Recreation and Parks Director Scott Hausler. Among the factors contributing to those declines are competition from “new or upgraded aquatic amenities” at the Aquatic Center and other nearby pools, according to Hausler.

Hausler estimated that it would cost $320,000 to repair and reopen the Manning pool, and suggested as alternatives a permanent shutdown of that facility or its replacement with an above-ground recreation area based on a spray park model rather than water in a pool. A committee appointed by the Hartford Selectboard is now studying the pool’s future and will hold its next meeting July 24.

Well-Heeled Aquatic Center

The town owns the Upper Valley Aquatic Center, but does not fund it, operate it or control it. The center looks new and lovely but loses money — but not the town’s money.

The losses at the facility — which includes an 11-lane, 25-meter competition swimming pool, an indoor splash park with a 110-foot water slide and a small arsenal of weights and exercise machinery — have been substantial.

The center posted earned revenue of $2.1 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2017, but had operating expenses of $2.7 million, or a shortfall of $544,000. That was actually a small improvement over the results in two previous years when shortfalls were closer to $600,000.

Synnott said the operating deficit had shrunk since the last financial report was issued, and that the previous persistence of red ink on the center’s books reflected the “maintenance intensive” nature of the facility. For example, he said, the center spent $450,000 to replace a dehumidification and heating system.

Synnott declined to provide copies of past financial reports from the center, which was organized as a nonprofit in 2006 and opened its doors in 2009. Town officials said that only the two most recent reports could be found in town records.

However, the center’s tax returns show that since the center opened to the public in 2009 through the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2016, it posted $17.2 million in operating expenses but only $13.2 million in program revenue.

Michael Cahoon, a Hanover accountant who is treasurer of the Sports Venue Foundation, the Vermont nonprofit entity that built and operates the center, confirmed that the cumulative shortfall over that period had been about $4 million.

Those annual deficits might have undermined the viability of another facility, but the Aquatic Center has been able to use contributions to cover most of the costs of building the center, funding its endowment, covering operating deficits and upgrading and expanding the center. Much of that support came, directly or indirectly, from a wealthy Hanover resident named Andrea Reimann-Ciardelli (or, as she is sometimes identified in documents, Andrea Ciardelli), who is president of the Sports Venue Foundation and of the Emily Landecker Foundation, a major donor to the Aquatic Center. (See sidebars one and two.)

The Town Becomes Owner

A complicated knot ties Hartford property-taxpayers to the nonprofit that operates the Aquatic Center.

“There is still this misunderstanding or confusion about the nature of our relationship with the town,” Synnott said. “There are still people who come in here and argue with us that their tax dollars are supporting this facility, and therefore we are too expensive.”

“There is not one dime of tax money that has gone into this facility ever,” he added.

On the other hand, there are many dimes of tax money that the town and state have forgone as a result of the town’s decision to accept ownership of the facility. That was the gist of a 2009 deal in which the Aquatic Center’s developers and operators transferred ownership to the town of Hartford.

As a result of that transaction, during the current tax year, the town and state won’t harvest the tax revenue that a private owner or for-profit corporation would be obligated to pay on a property with an assessed valuation of $7.6 million.

The town stepped in during 2009 to become the center’s owner after state officials refused to exempt the center from its obligation to pay the portion of property taxes that go to state coffers. The town had already agreed to exempt the center from local property taxes. Town ownership solved the problem. Because the town does not tax itself for its own facilities, the local portion of the property tax obligation was still erased. And because the state does not collect a tax on town-owned properties, that portion of the property tax was also erased.

That decision eliminated a budget hit that was facing the center’s developers and operators. At the 2018 rate of $2.51 per $100 of assessed valuation, the $7.6 million center would generate a tax liability of nearly $192,000 in overall property taxes.

If the town wasn’t the owner, that obligation would no longer be hypothetical, and would be added to the center’s already hefty operating deficit.

A Top-Flight Venue

The town’s role as owner of the facility has spurred recurring discussions of the ways in which the new center benefits the town and its residents.

Synnott said the center has “proven to be an amazing benefit for the community,” proving wrong naysayers who a decade ago dismissed the undertaking as a “boondoggle.”

The center has improved the community’s “health, fitness level and emotional well-being,” and also given a boost to the economy, Synnott said.

The facility’s financial impact includes 15 annual swim meets that bring hundreds of people to town and generate up to $2 million in local spending on hotel rooms, fuel, food and other items, he said.

With about 2,800 members, the facility employs 100 people, including “15 to 20 (with) full-time, good jobs with benefits and everything else” and a total payroll of about $1.6 million, he said. Recently improved financial results have enabled the center to begin offering health insurance coverage to some employees, Cahoon said.

The center’s developers and supporters also promised other benefits for the town, its residents and low-income families.

For example, in May 2007, then Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said in an email to the Valley News that the proposed aquatic center would be “dedicated to the public good and addresses needs that we as a community would otherwise need to provide for.”

In a recent interview, Rieseberg, who is now the town manager in Newport, N.H., looked back proudly on his efforts to support the development of the center.

“We pursued the Upper Valley Aquatic Center and the opportunity it gave the children of the Upper Valley to do things that would typically only be available to people living in urban areas,” he said.

The object was to build community and expand opportunities to people in this region, said Rieseberg, whose two children now are members of the center’s competitive swim team: “It has met and exceeded all of our expected goals.”

There was a 2007 agreement among the town, the foundation and the private company that Reimann-Ciardelli used to acquire and transfer the site where the center was built that obligated the foundation to “fundraise annually for funds to be used as scholarship or admittance fees for members of the community unable to afford the standard user fees.”

However, the deal left it to the foundation to award those scholarships or subsidies as it saw fit “with the exception that economically disadvantaged residents of the Town of Hartford shall be given first priority.”

A recent seasonal brochure published by Hartford’s Parks and Recreation Department included some activities at the center, including monthly “splash nights” for children in grades four through eight ($5 admission), free 11-hour “learn to swim” programs for second- and third-graders from each of the town’s three elementary schools and an invitation to join the center’s swim team.

However, swim team participation comes with a hefty price tag. Fees for a two-month stint during the summer range from $300 to $655. Some subsidized registration fees and free tryouts are available this summer, according to the center’s website.

Hartford residents also get a break on general membership fees. A year costs $1,130 for a nonresident family of five, while town residents pay $1,090 — a 3.5 percent saving. (According to its website, a family membership at the Carter Community Building Association, a nonprofit recreation and fitness facility in Lebanon, costs $1,249.)

In January, Synnott, the center’s executive director, in an email to the Valley News, said that the Aquatic Center “provided $130,000 worth of low-cost or no-cost programs last year.” (By comparison, that was about $10,000 less than Synnott’s $140,000 total compensation package in calendar year 2015, according to the foundation’s tax return, and substantially less than the center’s current property tax break of about $192,000.)

But the center’s audited financial statement showed that in fiscal 2017, it provided $110,000 in discounts and scholarships, while in the two previous years such offerings were valued at $82,000 and $112,000.

Synnott said the larger numbers cited in his email reflected the center’s support for various programs that went beyond discounts and scholarships. In his email, Synnott noted that the center provided support for memberships for 155 families and 80 individuals, free swim lessons for 140 children from Hartford, 1,800 free passes donated to local charities, a breast cancer survivor program with 60 participants, “47 free weeks of splash camp” and additional discounted visits to other nonprofits.

Some in town remain unimpressed. The Aquatic Center’s impact “depends on your socioeconomic status,” said William Wittik, a Hartford Village resident. “It’s unaffordable for a lot of people in the town.”

Ken Parker, a White River Junction insurance agent and former town selectman, agreed.

“It’s expensive for a family to take their kids up to the Aquatic Center,” he said, especially when parents are required to pay admission fees to watch their kids play in the water.

But Parker also noted the project provided the town with “benefits (that) are multiple and unlimited,” including additional tax revenue from restaurants and hotels.

The 2007 agreement between the center and the town called for the establishment of a Public Oversight Advisory Committee, comprising three representatives of the town and two from the foundation. The agreement called for the committee to “not less than annually provide a formal communication to the Town and (Sports Venue Foundation) as to whether the terms and conditions of this Agreement and this Management Agreement are being met by the parties thereto.”

Hartford Town Manager Leo Pullar said that the committee “meets as issues arise” but had not convened during his two-year tenure.

Enter the Pool Committee

The center’s relationship and potential usefulness to the town and its residents have garnered more attention in recent months, as the town has faced the dilemma of what to do about maintenance problems at its seasonal Sherman Manning Pools.

That facility was closed during the summer of 2015, reopened the next two summers and is closed this summer. The current shutdown was ordered after the town passed an annual budget that failed to allocate $320,000 to spend on necessary repairs.

Total attendance at the Manning pool — where last summer a membership for a family of four cost $95 and an individual adult day pass cost $5 — declined to 4,217 in the summer of 2017, from 5,994 in 2013, according to the December presentation by Hausler, the town’s parks and recreation director.

Since fiscal year 2014, annual operating deficits at the Manning pool have ranged from $23,500 to $74,700, while annual operating budgets ranged from $45,700 to $86,700.

In February, the Selectboard voted to establish a Pool Advisory Committee that would evaluate the needs at the Manning pool and develop “recommendations for a way ahead for an aquatic experience within the Town.”

The committee was asked to consider various options for the existing pool, ranging from shutting it down and demolishing it, repairing its “leaking gutter and pool shell structure,” adding new features or building a new pool on the site. It was also asked to “determine other aquatic facility options and possible locations.”

In April, the town issued a request for proposals for a consultant to assess the town’s needs and options at the Manning pool. The study is also supposed to “evaluate regional availability of aquatic options” and estimate the cost of repairs to the existing outdoor pools and the cost of building a new pool somewhere else.

In June, the committee chose Weston & Sampson, a Peabody, Mass., provider of “design, engineering and environmental services” to conduct the assessment.

The financial challenges that face the Manning pool are far from unusual for municipal swim facilities.

“Public pools have never been a profitable line item in recreation budgets, bogged down by expensive initial construction costs and ongoing maintenance needs,” according to a 2015 story in Athletic Business magazine.

As a result, pool developers try to provide for diverse uses in order to generate multiple revenue streams.

“Design of new aquatic facilities aims to be as multifunctional as possible, catering to competitive swimming, leisure use and fitness,” according to Athletic Business.

That’s a big order for the Sherman Manning Pools, with its aging facility and limited resources.

By comparison, with hefty outside backing, the Upper Valley Aquatic Center has been able to offer facilities and programs that cover all three sides of that functional triangle. But it faces competition from other providers, including the Carter Community Building Association and the River Valley Club in Lebanon.

The Upper Valley is “a good market right now,” said Joe Asch, the owner of the River Valley Club. “We all compete with each other, but we all have different niches to some extent.”

Hilde Ojibway, the chairwoman of the Pool Advisory Committee, was a frequent user of the Manning pool, both for herself and for her children and grandchildren. She recalled her 12-year-old daughter describing the outdoor pool as “the only place in town for kids.”

Ojibway said she has talked to over 100 residents in recent weeks, and found that “some people see no need for a second pool.” A more systematic survey is underway, and Ojibway declined to speculate as to what it would show about public opinion.

But Ojibway, who is also a member of the Aquatic Center, said that personally she thinks that the town needs an outdoor pool “if we can possibly afford it.”

With its low admission fees and accessibility, an outdoor pool is complementary to the Aquatic Center, and delivers “benefits for people of all ages,” she added.

“The Aquatic Center does a lot of different things in the same space,” she noted, but the warm water temperature in the splash area doesn’t appeal to her in the summer.

Synnott, the Aquatic Center director, said that he was open to meeting with the committee to discuss ways in which the center could help address the town’s needs but noted that crowding is already a problem at his facility in the summer: “Between our summer camp, our swim lessons, our general members and the specialty lessons that we do for these outside groups, and the discounted groups that we have coming, it’s pretty full.”

The center couldn’t absorb the swim activities and programs that previously occurred at the Manning pool, he stressed. Noting that four out of five current members of the center are Hartford residents, he said it would also be impractical to offer deals to those coming over from the Manning: “If we offered some kind of discount, we’d have to give it to everybody. Then we’d financially go broke.”

The Future

As the Aquatic Center concludes its first decade of operation, it remains a remarkable facility for a rural region — especially in the wake of a $4.4 million upgrade and renovation that was completed last year.

The project added about 5,000 square feet of floor space, new exercise equipment and areas for fitness and group activities, a family locker room and an area being rented to a physical therapist.

Cahoon said early fiscal deficits resulted from “mechanical issues and stuff like that” and that a strong first nine months of the current fiscal year had left the center close to being “sustainable and running inside of itself” into the future.

“The center itself is financially viable,” Cahoon said. “The endowment is there to make it function and make it work.”

Yet all that may not matter. So long as the Aquatic Center’s leading benefactor — or benefactors — possess the resources and inclination to provide additional support when needed, the center seems positioned to continue operations.

But Cahoon didn’t encourage an expectation of future outside support. “Long-term, the endowment is what’s covering the facility,” he said.

He noted that the Landecker Foundation had “been very generous in the past, and it may be in the future, but I don’t think that’s something the community should be thinking (is) going to always be there as the back support.”