City to consider cost of assuming Marion Aquatics

Patrons take part in a class at the Marion Aquatics Pool in November 2017. -- Photo submitted by Cynthia Stahl.

Delegation, citing publicly-available records, pins additional costs in the tens of thousands. Councilors estimate it could cost up to $500,000 per year

The City of Prince Albert will take a long, hard look at possibilities of reopening Marion Aquatics as a city-run facility after a group of concerned citizens implored council to rethink their role in the pool’s closure.

Earlier this year, it was announced that the pool would be closing after the city declined to renew its $143,000 subsidy of the operation and the Sisters of the Presentation of Mary, who operate and own the facility, decided it was time for them to step back from operations.

The decision was met with a local outcry, with councillors getting phone calls and letters and multiple letters to the editor sent to the paper.

Monday, a delegation that had collected over 700 signatures appeared in front of executive committee to ask them to take another look at the facility and find a way to keep it going until the new recreation centre opens in a few years.

The presentation was made by Murdine McCreath and Alma Newman, two local seniors who make use of Marion Aquatics. McCreath lives in the RM of Buckland, and is one of about 90 seniors, she estimates, who participate in regular aquacise classes at the pool. Newman is a lane swimmer who said she makes regular use of the city’s two indoor pools and one, seasonal, outdoor facility.

“if you haven’t seen the pool, it’s incredibly beautiful and immaculately kept,” McCreath said.

“The purpose we have today is to use numbers, logic and a little bit of emotion to keep on and continue the use of that pool until the new facility is built, which may be some time.”

McCreath, who said she got to know some of the nuns who helped operate the facility, called the pool a “gift” to the local community.

To make her case, McCreath used numbers. She said that in 2019, pre-COVID, there were 19.825 visitors to the facility, mostly consisting of aquacise and swimming lessons. She said that over 8,000 of those visits were little ones learning to swim between the months of September and June.

She also cited the pool as important for the Prince Albert Pikes synchronized swimming team. The team, which has won multiple provincial awards, can’t use the Frank Dunn Pool, she said, as it’s not deep enough. There also aren’t any free time slots for the team, made up of nearby schoolchildren, to book.

Newman expressed concerns that closing the pool without a suitable replacement will do damage to the city’s strong aquatic community.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is an offer you guys can’t refuse,” she said.

“If this pool closes, the Frank Dunn pool cannot absorb all of these people. You’re going to build a brand new aquatic centre three years out and half the users of it won’t be swimming. That’s pretty bad planning. We need to maintain what we have, we need to sustain it and improve it so that when the new pool opens, it will be well-used.”

Newman equated an investment to keep the pool running to an investment “for a brighter future for the aquatics community.”

She cited publicly available records from the Canada Revenue Agency that seem to show the relative ease, in her mind, with which the city could take over the pool.

Rivier Academy, which formerly housed a school and currently houses the pool, is a registered non-profit. Since it takes in revenues of over $100,000, its financial disclosures are listed publicly on the CRA website.

Newman looked at the last full year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pool, she said, cost about $350,000 to run that year, and collected user fees of almost $200,000. With the city’s existing $143,000 contribution, she argued, it wouldn’t take much — perhaps a small increase in fees or a little extra city funding — to keep the pool operating for another year. She suggested a small increase to the civic facilities levy, just $25 per resident per year, would be enough. She said a $35 levy would raise about $550,000 a year, citing the recent decision by the city to enact such a levy to fund additional police officers.

“I’m not here to denigrate anything you do,” Newman said.

“I know you have to be fiscally responsible, but Marion Aquatics is a drop in the bucket. We need to maintain what we have. I would like to challenge you to include the gem of the Marion.”

She said the facility is vital for children and senior populations of Prince Albert, and offered herself as a spokesperson to convince taxpayers that it’s worth paying a little more.

 “I’m not asking you to keep it forever. I’m saying let’s retain it and maintain it until we have the new facility. I want you to give it some sober second thought,” she said.

“I want you to think about the investment in the wellness, the fitness, the health, the quality of life of this community, and I’d like you to dig deep into your imagination and your leadership.”

While council seemed open to reconsidering its contribution of $143,000, they were hesitant to commit to anything more.

Mayor Greg Dionne suggested the women form a not-for-profit board to take over the facility’s management. He said he’d support them with the funding to keep the facility going if they were to do that.

But Newman said that wouldn’t be a possibility.

“We’re not even an entity,” she said. “I’m throwing it back to you. You have swimming pools. You have lifeguards. You know how to do this. I know the budget’s going to go a little higher, but we have incredibly competent people here. Why would you expect a group of old ladies and teenagers to try to run a swimming pool?”

Ward 5 Coun. Dennis Ogrodnick said he’d love for the city to take over the facility, but that it’s not financially possible.

“This was a financial decision,” he said. “This has been a very, very tough budget. To even come up with $140,000, I don’t know where we’ll get that money from. To take it over is going to be a huge task for the city.”

Ogrodnick estimated it would cost closer to $500,000 to operate the pool. Dionne suggested a similar dollar amount. But Ogrodnick and Ward 6 Coun. Blake Edwards suggested a contribution from another funding source — the RMs.

Ward 8 Coun. Ted Zurakowski agreed. He thanked the presenters for bringing the debate back into the public square. Council hasn’t considered the financial implications of running the facility since it was first decided to begin providing the subsidy three years ago.

Council voted to have city staff prepare a report outlining their options. It’s set to come back for consideration in 30 days.

Dionne said that, unlike city facilities, the pool is more complicated as it’s privately owned and tied to the building as a whole.

“It’s going to be hard fur us to get some of the costs,” he said.

“That building is 195,000 square feet. It has one gas meter. We don’t know if the heating system is run jointly.”

That means, for instance, that the pool heater and building heater might be on the same boiler, which would make it prohibitively expensive to run.

He said at a cost of $500,000, it will cost the city $1.5 million over three years to keep the pool running. That’s the same cost the city agreed to pay to expand the new facility to ensure it meets the minimum requirements for competition.

He also said the city would extend hours at the Frank Dunn pool in the meantime if the demand is there.

McCreath, who lives in the RM, said she will happily approach her council and appeal to them to contribute some money to keep the facility open.

The topic of RM funding city facilities used by its residents was also raised during council last week. RM of Buckland Reeve Don Fyrk said it would be a conversation his council would be open to having, but that they haven’t received a formal request to help fund the new recreation facility yet.

Dionne said Monday that the request is coming.

 Newman suggested the conversation about Marion Aquatics could serve as a “catalyst” for more future cooperation in funding recreational facilities.

She agreed that she and other concerned pool users have to do their part. But she stressed that the city has a role to play as well.

“They would like to find a solution. I’m cautiously optimistic,” she said after the meeting.

“I know it’s not … simple. Money is tight.”

She said if one can’t be found, and the Prince Albert Pikes, for instance, are left without a home, it would be “really tragic.”

McCreath stressed that the facility is vital to the area residents, and should be treated as such.

“Where (else) can 90 women go for exercise?” she asked.

“I’ve got boys that played hockey. They played soccer. They were subsidized forever. (The Pikes) won awards. If they were hockey players, we wouldn’t be seeing any hesitation with finding ways to keep a rink open.”

She added that fees pay for 2/3 of the facility’s cost and that the city wouldn’t have to pay a cent in infrastructure.

She said that’s value the city can’t find at any other facility in town.

By the numbers

The assertion from McCreath and Newman that the additional cost to the city to operate the pool is small stands up if you look at the 2019 numbers. But how about for other years?

The Herald looked through the CRA filings for the 2018, 2017 and 2016 years as well.

Here’s what we found:

In 2018, the pool only generated $159,493 from “sales” for goods and services. It also depended on $100,000 in contributions from other registered charities.

It reported $108,000 in “occupancy costs” and $152,000 in compensation for full- and part-time employees. Its total expenses were $286,201, a deficit compared to the $261,000 or so in revenue reported that same year.

In 2017, Rivier received $120,000 in donations from other charities and $168,000 from its own revenue. It reported $144,000 in occupancy costs and $176,000 in compensation, and reported a deficit of over $60,000.

The year prior was a bit different. Rivier also operated as a school for the first six months of 2016. With six months of school operations combined with 12 months of pool operations, Rivier reported its revenue as $682,224, including $266,649 from sales of goods and services. Expenses that year totaled over $805,000.

The Herald attempted to examine which charities donated to the facility, and for how much. It found some donations from the nearby Catholic cathedral, as well as a not-for-profit organization called the Sisters of the Presentation, who included, among other activities, the subsidization of the educational swimming pool in Prince Albert.

As for where that leaves the city, residents will have to wait for city staff to report back with their findings. However, the pool never topped $16,533 in administrative and management expenses in the three years the Herald examined (2017, 18 and 19). That number would likely increase under city management, as all pool activities would be considered paid hours, likely raising that number by a few thousand dollars.

The city may also have to make up the proportion of the budget funded by donations. In 2019, it was just $20,000, but in 2020 it rose to $50,000.

Regardless, both the pool users and city politicians are unanimous — it’s time for the sisters to step away from managing the pool and move into the next chapter of their lives.