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May 20, 2008

Taking a bath: Neighborhood group won’t let go of pools issue despite Metro’s assurance that it’s over

The swimming pool at Breslin Park would make a great postcard from the apocalypse. This dirty, cracked and empty concrete hole is currently the centerpiece of the Irish Hill neighborhood’s modest public park, at the corner of Lexington Road and Payne Street. It’s also the subject of a dispute between a neighborhood good at organizing and an administration in need of some quick cash. In early February, Mayor Jerry Abramson announced his administration would be closing five public pools as part of a cost-cutting strategy during a fiscal year when the city expects a revenue shortfall of $12 million. Closing the pools is expected to save Metro government about $2.1 million in short-term funds, a figure drawn from expected rehabilitation and operating expenses for the five pools to be open 10-11 weeks. Now, a group called ’SUP, an acronym for Save Urban Pools, is working to raise money to open two of the pools — at Breslin and Shelby parks — for the summer. It’s a tall order: The group said Thursday it wants Metro to run the pools, as well as match the funds it raises independently to get them going. Metro Parks has said that unless the group can raise enough money to cover all the costs, and find a third-party operator, it would not consent to opening the pools. Somewhat famously, Tom O’Shea, owner of O’Shea’s Irish Pub, Flanagan’s Ale House and Brendan’s, has agreed to contribute every Monday’s earnings from his three businesses throughout the month to a fund to be used for pool expenses. During a press conference on Thursday, ’SUP announced that the restaurateur raised around $7,000 last Monday, and hoped to come up with $40,000 by the end of May. There was also talk that Molly Malone’s — a bar and restaurant near O’Shea’s on Baxter Avenue — would offer some of its earnings toward opening the beleaguered pools. ’SUP said it has also raised $3,000. Aleve Douglas, who lives in nearby Phoenix Hill, said she’d hoped to use the pool to teach her 4-year-old son to swim. “I think people should be able to walk to these types of things,” she said. “This is an existing service that’s being taken away. It’s not like we’re asking for something new.” Last year, there were 10 public pools in Louisville — nine outdoor plus the Mary T. Meagher Indoor Aquatic Center in the Crescent Hill neighborhood. Each is a bastard in its own way: The pool at Western High School needed more than $1 million in repairs, so that closure was obvious. Without Western or Watterson pools, repair and operating costs would be $372,000. According to Jason Cissell, a spokesperson for Metro Parks, three factors went into choosing which pools to close. “The age and condition of each pool, it was the attendance at each pool, and it was the overall geography of the pool, trying to continue to provide service in as wide a geographical area as possible,” he said. On average, 19 kids and 18 adults visited the pool at Breslin every day last season, according to numbers provided by Metro government. Twenty-seven kids visited Shelby. That does not include groups of kids — Metro field trips or others — that Cissell said have already been diverted to other public pools. Based on last year’s attendance records and the projected operating costs for this summer — paying lifeguards, a supervisory staff and cashiers, as well as for repairs, insurance, chemicals and other supplies — it would cost $36.27 per taxpayer to operate the Breslin pool, according to Cissell. That figure includes the money Breslin takes in during the summer: Last year, at $1.50 per person, it pulled $5,282.50. Metro estimates the cost of getting Breslin up and running this year to be $110,000. Metro Parks has said it would not reopen these five pools, three of which are outside the Watterson Expressway (and thus, not considered “urban” by most standards), much to the chagrin of ’SUP, which also enjoys the backing of the neighborhood associations of Irish Hill, Phoenix Hill, Butchertown, Clifton and German-Paristown. If ’SUP’s plan to open the Breslin pool fails, it will still have thousands of dollars on hand; its representatives aren’t sure how that might be spent. One way could be to help achieve a total revision and upgrade of Breslin Park, which was agreed to in 2001 under a “master plan” concocted by Metro government and the Irish Hill Neighborhood Association. Roughly 30 of the 123 city parks have master plans for major improvements, and Cissell said Metro acts on those plans when money is available to do so. The city also just spent $450,000 improving the Mary T. center, which got around 220,000 visits last year. And Metro is talking up its long-range aquatics plan, expected to be released soon, which will outline a broader strategy that — judging from recent actions — may focus more on so-called “spraygrounds” than traditional pools: There is one in place at Iroquois Park now, and four are on the way. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com