Five years ago, a grassroots coalition of Belle Terre Swim & Racquet Club members raised money to save the club when the school district proposed closing it to the public. Now, with memberships and revenues declining — and taking a recent hit from COVID-19 — the future of the aging facility is again in question.
The school district's ownership of the club is something of an anomaly: Aside from a high school swim team that uses its pool for practice, the facility doesn't serve the district's K-12 programs, and therefore falls outside of the district's instructional mission. Instead, the club serves a heavily retiree user base of members who swim laps in its pool and use its gym and tennis courts.
"I think we need to be innovative. ... Because we don't want to take money from our kids. We can’t. We just can’t do that."
— CHERYL MASSARO, School Board member, on the need to find new funding sources for the Belle Terre Swim & Racquet Club
The problem, as it was in 2016, is money: The facility is facing a $500,000 shortfall, in part because memberships have dropped and special events and classes held there have been cancelled due to the pandemic.
But district money shifted toward the club to cover the shortfall would be money made unavailable for the district's K-12 students.
At a School Board workshop Jan. 19, district Facilities Manager Dave Freeman presented a litany of things that need fixing or reconstruction: The tennis and pickleball courts need surface repair. The shuffleboard court's concrete is so cracked that it can't be used for shuffleboard and is instead being used for CrossFit tire flip workouts. The parking lot needs resurfacing and restriping, a project that would cost about $200,000. The 30-year-old portable classroom's ramp and deck need work that would be about $50,000-$60,000, or it could be demolished. The bathhouses need electrical and plumbing work and are not up to ADA standards, so doing any work there would require bringing them up to ADA standards and losing sinks and stalls. Feeman's recommendation was to demolish the building and get a new, metal one, which would be about $2 million.
"Got anything good to tell us?" School Board member Colleen Conklin said with a laugh. "Ay yai yai."
There had been some good news: The pool itself was resurfaced and repaired in 2017 and still has a good amount of life in it; the main office building is in sound condition aside from some minor exterior wood rot; and the sauna building was repaired eight years ago and is in good condition, as is the gym, a metal building that was added in 2007.
Conklin asked district staff members how much it would cost to keep the facility running, and how many people use it.
The answer was $500,000 — just to cover the shortfall, not including major facility repairs — and a current user base of 1,243 full time members, down by 135 since the pandemic began.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: The Observer was notified after this story initially published that the membership numbers presented by a staff member in the School Board workshop presentation were incorrect: The club's full time membership is not 1,243, according to School Board attorney Kristy Gavin. The latest number, taken in December 2020, was 193 full time members, down from 550 in December of 2019. School Board members' discussion at the workshop was based on the higher, incorrect membership numbers. Board members were notified of the error on Feb. 2, according to Gavin.)
Regular members pay $225 a year, and some people buy monthly memberships or $4 day passes, or have memberships that are funded through insurance-linked health programs such as Medicare's SilverSneakers.
A number of clubs or classes also use the facility: In addition to the high school swim team, there are youth swim lessons, Red Cross CPR/AED training sessions, a district-run swim club called Flagler Fluid, a martial arts training program that rents the classroom, and a youth synchronized swimming team called the Synchro Belles, among others.
Board members asked about the community group that had formed to save the club in 2016. Staff said that it hasn't been meeting regularly.
Conklin wasn't comfortable with the prospect of taking $500,000 out of the district's reserves to pay for a facilty that largely serves adults.
"That just doesn’t seem OK to me," she said. "... Are we at the point where we need to reengage the county, the city, and invite them to the table?"
The county government had contributed $25,000 in 2016 to help keep the facility open.
Woolbright agreed, noting that the club's position in the community has shifted over the decades.
"As a resident of this county since the '80s, there once was a time when adult and community ed was huge, it was giant; it was what propped up this community," Woolbright said. "And Belle Terre was a part of that, and we didn’t have anything else."
Since then, the city and county have added parks and trails and the community has gained a plethora of private gyms, she said. Even the high school swim team can't hold actual meets at the club, because the pool isn't deep enough.
"The need in the county was not what it was when Flagler Schools got in the business of adult and community education," Woolbright said. "Times have changed, and we need to change with them. ... That’s money the schools could be using for students, for children."
She suggested looking for "other players" who could help support the club financially.
"I think you’re right: Times have changed," Conklin said. "Back in the day, we were the only game around." Now that the district has recognized the problem, she said, the next step would be creating a new plan. She noted that the facility could become a good senior center.
Board member Cheryl Massaro suggested looking into recreation block grants, potentially in partnership with the city or county.
"I think we need to be innovative," Massaro said. "We do provide quite a bit of services, so the idea is: What’s working and what’s not, and what can we capitalize on? ... And the bottom line is, Is it feasible? Because we don't want to take money from our kids. We can’t. We just can’t do that."
Conklin suggested that district staff come develop a strategy for addressing the shortfall and the facility's repair needs, and present it to the board at a workshop in February.
Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt agreed to do so.