Let's leave the muni pools until there's a better idea

OPINION: Hamilton’s Municipal Pools on Victoria Street celebrated their 100 year anniversary in 2012 – the year council closed them. Now council is applying to itself for a resource consent to demolish the pools, despite opposition led by Sink or Swim, a group of tireless volunteers.

Pools are one of those feel-good community assets that attract emotional arguments, such as teaching kids to avoid drowning. I get that. But we still need to balance economic realities. Ratepayers end up subsidising users for maintenance and the business risk is carried by the council. The facilities at these particular pools are very tired, the pools themselves leak, and even Sink or Swim talk about refurbishment costs in the multi-millions. We already have two large wimming complexes at Water World and Gallagher’s, and there is another one proposed for Rototuna.

I thought it was time to move on – until I heard Sink or Swim talk about the process.

When an institution wants to get rid of an historic or important public building, the favoured process is known as ‘demolition by neglect’ – a popular method amongst bureaucrats where the first step is to cut maintenance. Give it some time until minor issues become major problems that turn into complaints. The next step is to commission consultants to write reports based on briefs intended to produce exaggerated refurbishment budgets.

Management can then be made to look prudent by delaying work further and opposition is softened up. Finally health and safety or structural issues are found, at which point most people roll over as it appears fait accompli. If this sounds familiar, then you probably followed the Founders Theatre/Church College/Euphrasie House sagas (to name just the recent ones).

Sure enough, a quick look at the pool’s reports show concrete cracks, loose soil under the foundations, and “indication” of a void (i.e. possibly unstable tomo). Sounds bad, possibly even terminal. But all concrete cracks – it is part of the drying process as it sets – the question is how deep. The entire riverbank is mainly sand, yet high-rises are built along it. “Indication” is consultant-speak for “we were told to find something, but didn’t really, so here’s a grey area that we can use without hanging our reputation on it, and we don’t want to look any further because real evidence may disprove it.” A serious investigation would have included core samples in the vicinity, or ground penetrating radar to determine if there really is a problem. 

The briefing presentation to councillors refers vaguely to “disability access and parking non-compliant”.  This is misleading as technically it complies as an existing use.

Statistics are cherry-picked to justify the predetermined outcome. Patronage figures of 13,557 are given for 2012, when operational interference meant patrons didn’t even know what the opening hours were. Previous years averaged 48,000, a figure that was not presented to councillors.

This is how bad decisions get made and repeated. Councillors need to ask some deeper questions and not simply take staff advice for granted. Mayor Andrew King should have some good queries – he was president of the Hamilton Amateur Swimming Club back in 2010 when maintenance problems at the pools caused the club to fold.

Now I want to know what the real agenda is.

Demolition is budgeted at $1 million. As all the River Plan money has been siphoned off to buying buildings to extend Victoria On The River park, there is nothing in the 10-year plan to redevelop the site. The land is endowed to the people of Hamilton for recreational use anyway.

So why not simply save the million bucks and leave the pools alone until there is a reason to get rid of them? If someone has a good reason, then tell us! It should not need to be implemented by stealth.

But there are other solutions.  

There is a need for swim training. Another institution, the Ministry of Education cut swimming from the school curriculum as health and safety sent costs skyrocketing. It is not their problem that round 100 kiwis drown every year. Sink or Swim have done their homework, and 21 Hamilton schools have said the Municipal Pools were their preferred venue. Community benefactors and commercial sponsors recognise the importance of this need and are prepared to put money into upgrades. Sink or Swim believes current demand will cover any operational costs. 

The challenge Sink or Swim face is sponsors don’t want to commit to a facility unless there is long-term support from the council as the landowner. Why is that support missing?

So here is my submission on the resource consent application:

(1)  Postpone demolition or give us a good plan for the re-use of the site, fully funded in
the near future.

(2)  If there is no good plan, give the community an opportunity to come up with a financial solution to upgrade and run the pools as a public asset for the next 100 years.


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