Tillsonburg Town Council at its June 11th meeting decided to pursue opening the outdoor pool at Lake Lisgar Water Park – without waiting to install the new water slide.
It will still take at least 4-5 weeks, however.
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Before making that decision, Council first received a detailed 10-page report from Andrea Brown, Recreation Programs and Service Manager, on COVID-19’s impact on the Town’s summer recreational programs and services. Taking into consideration financial implications, staffing issues, and limited time to put health and safety recommendations into place, the June 4th report had recommended Tillsonburg’s summer camps, the indoor and outdoor aquatics facilities, the Town’s health club and fitness programs should all be suspended until at least August 31st due to “the uncertainty about COVID-19 restrictions and the associated financial pressures on the municipality.”
Finalized on June 4th, some of the report’s content had become outdated when the Premier of Ontario announced that the Southwestern Public Health region, including Tillsonburg, would be moving on Friday, June 12 to Stage 2 of Ontario’s reopening.
“The way that (the report) was originally written… was to discontinue some of the summer projects,” said Tillsonburg Deputy Mayor Dave Beres. “But with the way that the Province is providing phase-ins… and we don’t know when and where these phase-ins are coming, I hate to restrict it at this point to completely shut down our aquatics services for the summer. There’s a couple of reasons for that. Number one, of course, is the danger that people may jump into Lake Lisgar like they did back in the ’40s, and that’s why the outdoor pool was built, and then later the Lake Lisgar Water Park. Another reason that we may want to – with the blessing of the Province – reopen the pool portion, not necessarily the water park portion with the water slide, but the pool portion… because other host communities that do open their water parks or their pools will take everyone out of our community and we may not get them back another year.
“So I’d hate to restrict that,” said Beres. “I think that Council should support the reopening of the pool…”
Beres agreed with the report, that opening the outdoor pool would be expensive.
“There’s no question,” said Beres. “But we do not run the pool as a money maker. There is an expense to that, and I think it’s a good expense because we’re investing in the people and the youth of our community.”
According to the report, it was estimated that if Summer Day Camp programs ran with Stage 1 restrictions in place, the camp would operated at a deficit of $20,000 or more.
“I must say, I was disappointed in the original report from Parks Recreation and Culture, that in the recommendation there really wasn’t anything that we could do that would be less than that,” said Councillor Penny Esseltine. “And I think given that the Province of Ontario has started to open up different aspects of Parks and Recreation, that the least we could do for the community is try and get something going for the summer.
“I wouldn’t necessarily be concerned with the indoor pool or the health club or even the fitness programs, but I think the water park is something that would really benefit children and families in the community if we could get that moving this summer,” said Esseltine. “I think we need to make some basic decisions tonight. First, whether we’re going to move ahead with that, and second, if we are, we have to make some staffing decisions. I think we have to seriously consider… to give Recreation Culture and Parks an opportunity to put people in place that can work with this. We need to let them know very soon, we need to make that decision very soon.
“I would like to see us do outdoor stuff,” Esseltine continued. “I read the restrictions on summer camps – they’re huge – but I wonder if we could consider even 1-2 hour special activities for children in the Memorial Park area, that could all be outside. Just sort of special things for kids, whether it’s physical fitness or games, that sort of stuff. Because parents at home with kids… I don’t know that there’s going to be a lot of camp opportunities here in Tillsonburg because I think, obviously, the Museum won’t be involved in that. Whether the Station Arts Centre or Theatre Tillsonburg is, I have not heard, but it would be nice to be able to offer some recreation opportunities for children – and even adults – in the park.
“So I would look to us moving ahead with the Water Park and programs for children, but not necessarily day camp. To do that tonight, we would have to move forward with making some decisions about staffing.”
“Councillor Esseltine, I couldn’t agree more,” said Councillor Deb Gilvesy. “I agree with everything you said. There’s things like Yoga in the Park… I’ve even inquired if we could rent our water park facility out to families of under 10 people. I think that there are opportunities.
“I think that the children have really been lost in this entire pandemic, and I hear my six-year-old granddaughter say, ‘you know, I’m tired of seeing Covid commercials on TV.’ Or, ‘I want to get together with my cousins.’ I think that we have a responsibility, if we can provide any type of ‘normalcy’ to the children this summer, that we need to move forward with that.
“I wholeheartedly agree,” Gilvesy summed up. “I believe that the way that this report is written, that Mr. (Rick) Cox needs direction with regards to staffing.”
Rick Cox, Director of Recreation, Culture & Parks, said the Town had students that would have started employment in June, and that those offers had not been rescinded pending the June 11 Council decision, noting the employment offers would have been rescinded if the report’s recommendation was accepted as presented.
“Those individuals have been communicated with, letting them know that this (report) was on the table, and they need to be prepared that perhaps if they were expecting a job with the town, they might need to be looking for other alternatives,” said Cox. “There may be some folks who have moved on to other opportunities already.”
Cox noted the time required to get the outdoor pool ready – 4-5 weeks without the installation of the water slide – would require patching a hole in the side of the pool (made when the old slide was removed), estimated to be about $2,000.
“I think that we need to start to return to some type of normalcy at at controlled state,” said Councillor Chris Parker. “I don’t think using a blanket closure date until August 31st is the way to proceed. Major health clubs are also starting to look at their reopening with guidelines that have been provided to them. A lot of the gym facilities are self-cleaning as well. It’s not like we need staff to do all of the cleaning at those facilities. I do think that we need to not close down until August 31st, especially for the aquatics facilities.”
“The return to some sort of normalcy, and to have something for the students and the younger people in the community to go to…” said Councillor Pete Luciani, “is something that we should be not be concerned about cost-wise, but should be concerned about to get it out there… psychologically.
“One of the key things you had in your report was the revenue side of it,” said Luciani, “and that we’re not going to have as much revenue coming in, and the offsets and the cost savings, etc. But we did in 2017 have a lot early closures due to water issues, etc. So that was down a little bit as well. 2018, we opened it without the water slide, and it wasn’t open to July 1st as well. There’s a lot of things in the Town that don’t make money, that are supported by tax dollars, that are here for the enjoyment of the citizens, and I think this (outdoor pool) is one of them. My concern is how long it would take to fill up, because obviously time is of the essence.”
Luciani questioned the wisdom of spending $2,000 to repair the hole in the pool wall, made during the removal of the old slide, without installing the bottom portion of the new slide at the same time.
“To me, the slide and the pool are a separate entity. Moving into Stage 2 only allows the pool to be open – the water park or slide part of it are still not available. But if we had the pool open, and the slide being worked on in the background while the pool is operational, and we had that area cordoned off… the slide can continue, and be ready to put into use as soon as Province says slides are now available. We’d add that to the repertoire of whatever’s in that particular area for enjoyment.”
Luciani also asked whether the Town could use the outdoor fence gates for entry to the park, to reduce cleaning required in changerooms.
“Just as a thought… advertise that the pool is open, but bring your own bathing suit, no different than going to a lake. And still use the washrooms at Summer Place when required.
“I think if there is any way we can expedite trying to get water in there, and movement as far as cleaning up the area so that we’re ready to go, I think it’s the proper move to make,” Luciani concluded.
According to the report, the Lake Lisgar Water Park – with water slide installed – would require a minimum five weeks, including filling the pool and installing the slide. COVID-19 had caused delays in the fabrication of water slide fibreglass and steel parts – some steel parts were expected the second week of June, some in early July. If the pool remained closed during slide installation, the estimate for the earliest completion ready test would be the last week of July. Barring further delays, that would mean an early August opening for a completed water park and a season that would be six weeks shorter than normal.
Cox said he did not think it was feasible – due to construction debris and dust – to operate the pool during water slide construction, or even fill the pool while construction was ongoing. He noted there would be no extra cost to delay the installation of the water slide until the pool was closed the first weekend of September.
“Either complete the water slide and not have a water pool (this summer) or vice versa, and complete the construction after the season is over,” Cox suggested.
“I have safety concerns and I don’t want to promise something that I can’t deliver.”
According to the report, due to the shorter operating season, lower admission capacity, and uncertain customer demand it could result in 70% or less of the projected revenue, or a reduction of at least $50,000. That without any other offsetting savings available, it would mean the tax levy subsidization of the water park would increase from $56,200 projected in the 2020 budget to approximately $100,000-$110,000.
“I want it here – and in public – to say that I’ve read it, I’ve reviewed it, parsed it up and down, and I appreciate the information in (the report),” said Mayor Stephen Molnar. “I want that to be heard loud, because it was factually, from that perspective, a well-written report.
“I do not, and categorically do not, support the recommendation,” said Molnar. “But the last thing I would do tonight… is receive this as information, and not giving direction, because it appears… the last time we reviewed this, the 11th of May, that ‘the Water Park remains closed for the 2020 operating season due to COVID-19 restrictions, and the associated financial pressures on the municipality.’ We had a wonderful, positive dialogue. It was received, we identified that there were costs associated with opening a pool without a slide.”
And no progress was made toward opening the pool, he noted.
“To Councillor Esseltine and to Councillor Gilvesy… I can’t enhance what you said. Because really, what business are we in? If we’re not here to be the facilitators of a safe social and recreational environment for the youth of our community, then why are we here?”
Molnar, again, praised the author of the report, but noted “a lot of what’s in this report is dated the moment the ink dries. And the announcement on Stage 2 came so recent, (it came after) the authorship of the report.
“If it’s 4-5 weeks to open a pool, we’ve just lost four weeks (since May 11),” said Molnar. “I don’t think we can wait past tonight.
“There are other things, in this report, that are responsible management comment, but I think Council then needs to step beyond… and say what is our goal? Why are we here?”
“So if it’s ‘yes, find a way, make it happen…’ I am prepared to say ‘these are the risks, this is the cost,’ and knowing that no one is going to open the door until we are operationally sound, have people trained, the water is balanced, the inspectors are in, they’ve done all their stuff. We have procedures and policies in place on how we’re going to operate each and every facility.”
Molnar suggested the emphasis should be on outdoor aquatics rather than indoor. And possibly using the outdoor pool in creative new ways.
“We’re the only guy in town with a public pool for kids. Day camps, or something else, let’s be creative. Let’s look at other communities, what are the challenges?
“My point is, COVID-19 is real. The Public Health impacts are real, and the already experienced financial pressures are real. Our job, to such a large degree, is to be leaders on how we transition back into ‘Stage 2’ or beyond. It can’t just be about a number… or else we’re in the wrong business.”