Three years ago, King County decided that it couldn't afford to stay in the public-swimming-pool business. Ten community pools faced closure. Speedo-clad swim-team members packed...

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Three years ago, King County decided that it couldn’t afford to stay in the public-swimming-pool business. Ten community pools faced closure.

Speedo-clad swim-team members packed city council meetings as swimmers across the county pushed city governments to fill in the gaps. And it worked: Cities all over the Eastside rallied and came up with temporary subsidies to save the pools.

But as the temporary money is running out, some communities are trying to figure out what comes next. The Northshore Ruiz-Costie Pool in Bothell will be the first to face this reckoning.

The pool’s annual subsidy — $50,000 from Bothell, $25,000 from Woodinville and $25,000 from the Northshore School District — expires at the end of 2005.

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Possibilities then include closing the pool, converting it into a more child-oriented “leisure pool,” or replacing it with an $18 million regional swim center that could be paid for with a property-tax increase.

But already the possibility of losing the pool is rekindling some of the same worries that existed three years ago.

“It would be terrible” if the pool closed, Linda Avery of Bothell said as she toweled off after a lunch-hour swim yesterday.

“You can tell it’s not brand new … but it’s just such a comfortable place,” she said.

The Seattle-based nonprofit Northwest Center now runs the Northshore Pool. It also operates the St. Edward Park Pool in Kenmore, which is paid for through 2006 by Kenmore, Kirkland, the state Parks Department, Bastyr University and Evergreen Health Care.

The Woodinville and Bothell high-school swim teams use the Northshore Pool, as does Wave Aquatics, a private Eastside team.

Ever since the closure threats in 2002, Northshore cities and the Northshore Park and Recreation Service Area (NPRSA) Board have been working on a longer-term plan.

In September, the board released several alternatives for keeping swimming in the area. The big question is how to make a pool pay for itself.

The trend is that “more bells and whistles” for pools add financial stability, said Carter Hawley, Kenmore’s assistant city manager, who also sits on the planning committee for the Northshore pools.

So-called “box pools” for competitive or lap swimming are at a disadvantage, Hawley said, because those swimmers won’t typically pay the high fees needed to keep a pool running.

Leisure-oriented pools — like the Mountlake Terrace Pool with a “fun island” and “plumbed spray toys” — can accommodate more people at once — and can charge higher rates.

“People will pay a whole lot more if their kid gets to play all afternoon,” Hawley said. “Then those kinds of activities can subsidize the school teams or the lap-swim folks.”

By all accounts, the Northwest Center, a Seattle-based nonprofit that manages businesses in which it employs developmentally disabled adults, runs a tighter ship than King County did. For instance, pool managers now spend less time in offices and more time lifeguarding, which saves on staffing costs.

But Chris Sumi, director of community pools for the Northwest Center, said that his organization still needs subsidies to break even.

The seven-member NPRSA Board is expected to take up the pools issue again in March.

Jim Downing: 206-515-5627 or jdowning@seattletimes.com