BENZONIA — The idea of a public pool and fitness center in Benzie County is making a splash, with 45 people attending a public forum Tuesday to find out more.
Diane Robertson Tracy is president of the Benzie Aquatic Center, the group that formed to explore whether such a center is feasible and sustainable.
“We’re testing the waters before taking a deep dive,” Tracy said.
A consulting firm, Isaac Sports Group, was hired to conduct a two-part study that will look at things such as whether Benzie needs a pool, what it will cost to build and operate, where it will go and who will staff it.
“I think it’s much needed,” said Kathryn Allen, of Frankfort. “I would think that the residents and especially the children would benefit because it’s important to know how to swim. It’s good exercise and keeps everybody fit.”
Swimming and water-related exercise is good for older people who may have issues with arthritis and people have to leave the area to find a public pool, said Allen, who was not at the forum, but contacted the Record-Eagle.
The aquatic center could partner with local school districts to offer swimming classes as part of physical education.
Beth Major, of Frankfort, said the pool is absolutely essential and a moral responsibility.
“You cannot have the youth of Benzie County with no easily-accessible way of learning how to swim,” Major said.
Tim Furbacher agrees.
“We live by water and we live in a land of underserved youth,” Furbacher said. “A pool is a great resource for both of those reasons.”
Cost of the first phase of the study is $20,000 and is mostly funded with grants and donations, Tracy said. The second phase — if needed — takes a more in-depth look at design concepts, operational costs and more at a projected cost of $40,000.
Consultant Stu Isaac was on hand to present several ideas to those who attended Tuesday’s meeting at the Mills Community House in Benzonia, but said none of those ideas are set in stone.
Designs include options ranging from about 31,000 to 49,000 square feet, with construction costs ranging from about $10 million to $17 million, Isaac said.
Construction of the aquatic center will be entirely funded through a capital campaign, though a millage may be sought for maintenance and operation costs, Tracy said.
“We’re not really sure,” Tracy said. “It could be a hybrid. We really do hope to do a good portion of this through philanthropy.”
Fundraising would likely take about two years, with permitting and construction taking about another two years, Isaac said.
Some at the forum questioned whether the pool would be feasible in the long term.
Kalkaska’s pool and fitness center — the Kaliseum — closed in September after a rusty bolt fell from the ceiling into the pool. A host of mechanical, structural and engineering failures has kept it closed.
Voters in May turned down a 20-year tax proposal that would have raised $29 million for renovations, maintenance and operations of the county-owned facility. The Kaliseum was built in 1996 with a voted bond, though voters did not approve an operational millage. The county’s general fund has been used to help pay its bills.
In Grand Traverse County, management of the Easling Pool was taken over by the YMCA in 2016 after high maintenance costs and failing infrastructure threatened to permanently close it.
The county-owned pool was built in 1970 with donated funds. A recent campaign raised funds for needed repairs and upgrades that came to about $600,000.
Isaac said the Benzie center could include lap, fitness and therapy pools, a hot tub, meeting and event space, workout rooms, a gymnasium and an indoor walking track.
It could also include an aquatic climbing wall, an inflatable obstacle course and underwater treadmills for use in a cardiac rehab program. People could do yoga on floating mats, learn to kayak indoors, watch ‘dive-in’ movies and, of course, take swimming lessons.
“These are all things that make it something for everybody,” Isaac told the crowd.
Karen Hertz has had a home in Benzie for 17 years and moved there permanently in May. She has arthritis and is used to going to a pool four or five times a week in Washtenaw, where she is from.
A pool in Benzie would be wonderful, Hertz said, especially in the winter.
Center programming would be designed to serve both seasonal and year-round residents, Isaac said. The center would be membership-based, but could have scholarships in place for those residents who aren’t able to pay, he said.
If the pool gets the go-ahead, partnerships will be sought with organizations such as Paul Oliver Memorial Hospital, Benzie’s parks and recreation department, Benzie Senior Resources and the Grand Traverse Bay YMCA. Corporate partnerships will also be looked at, Isaac said.