Final two plans omit expensive pool

Bond funding for a district natatorium was a hot topic that dominated discussions in the Humble ISD bond committee meetings. However, in the end, and after much debate, neither of the two final bond scenarios developed by the community committee recommended the $51.5 million competition natatorium as a priority for the school board to include in the 2018 bond.

In the swimming world, competition pools are 50-meter pools. Humble ISD already has five 25-yard pools at each of the high school campuses. The district stance and justification for the new, multimillion-dollar natatorium was that these pools are inadequate, creating a competitive disadvantage for the current 312 Humble ISD student swimmers enrolled at the five high schools.

“Humble ISD’s current pools meet the basic requirements for high school swimming but do not allow for students to prepare to compete against the top-caliber swimmers due to the limitations of the 25-yard pools for training,” according to district spokesperson Jamie Mount.

Other district representatives spoke to anecdotal evidence that the natatorium would be profitable. Athletic Director Troy Kite spoke about a phone call with the Conroe ISD superintendent regarding their 50-meter pool.

“The superintendent there said they bring in $600,000 annually in revenue and there’s an additional $25 million impact in the community.” Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen, CFO Mike Seale, Jenna Armstrong, from the Lake Houston Chamber, and several swim parents talked about how much local revenue the natatorium would drive to local restaurants and hotels during swim meets.

On Nov. 16, bond committee members asked to see a revenue or business plan--a breakdown of the economic impact--and asked questions about the time period in which Conroe earned the $25 million in revenue.

One of the main reasons the measure did not pass muster was that the figures—not even a one-pager—were never produced, despite the fact that Humble ISD reached out to other districts like Round Rock ISD, which has readily available and publicly-accessible data.

Previously, before the pool addition was defeated, there were discussions of creating two separate bond issues—one for $50 million for the pool, and one for $550 million for everything else. This would allow the main bond to pass and not be cratered by community members not in favor of the natatorium.

The comparison of the Humble ISD theoretical pool to Conroe ISD’s actual competition natatorium is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Conroe opened their pool in 2008, also making a strategic decision to have one central natatorium. As such, Conroe does not have pools at all the high schools like Humble ISD does. In that first year, $600,000 in revenue was generated for Conroe ISD, but it was from the entire sports complex--including football--and not just from swimming. Natatoriums are notoriously expensive to operate. Seale verified that they top the list as the most expensive operating cost of any district facility. Conroe has experienced that; they run an annual deficit of $400,000 to operate their pool.

Another touted benefit of the Humble natatorium was community access to the pool by “people from age 2 to 99,” as noted by Assistant Superintendent of High Schools Trey Kraemer in a Dec. 4 bond presentation. Yet the district didn’t seem to have a consistent message regarding community use either. Less than 20 minutes later, Associate Superintendent of Support Services Nolan Correa told one of the breakout groups that community access would likely be limited due to scheduling of the natatorium for school use.

Indeed, the Conroe ISD 50-meter pool started out in 2008 as a community use pool as well. Just two years later, the community began complaining that they could not book time at the pool.

Conroe built the 50-meter pool in 2008 at a cost of $14 million.

Can this general North Houston area support multiple competition natatoriums? Humble’s bond committee is not the only group to ask the question. The Woodlands Township did as well. When the town closed the 1970s-era Woodlands Athletic Complex over a decade ago, due to disrepair for lack of use and rising maintenance costs, the area was left without a 50-meter pool – that is until Conroe ISD built theirs.

Like The Woodlands, Austin-area school districts like Hays ISD and Round Rock ISD have adopted the “skin in the game” partnership model. The small district of Hays ISD kicked in $5 million for a YMCA-funded pool with agreements they could use the pool for competitions. With 48,000 students, Round Rock ISD is a closer comparison with Humble ISD. They partnered with the YMCA to build their area 50-meter natatorium, with each kicking in roughly half of the cost.

Fagen said that there are interested partners for the Humble natatorium, and that preliminary discussions have taken place. The Houston Sports Authority is interested in such a facility, but only if the seating capacity is 2,500, which would add another $5 to $6 million to the project (the current price tag of $51.5 million is only for a 1,200-seat facility). However, the current situation is that the district has no specific contractual agreements in place with any partner.

The district has undertaken similar partnerships on the Turner Stadium renovation, funded by the last 2008 bond at an actual cost of approximately $16 million. In this case, the Houston Sports Authority did partner with the district, and $16 to $18 million in additional improvements from groups like the Authority have been done at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Other pools have sponsors as well; for example PBK Architects, author of the Humble ISD facilities assessment report and Houston’s largest architectural firm, is also a sponsor of the Conroe ISD natatorium.

Why is the Humble pool so expensive? At $51.5 million, it far exceeds similar pools like Round Rock’s by approximately $20 million. Some committee members even asked Rick Blan of PBK Architects to relook at the figures because they seemed so disproportional.

This type of investment begged the question from many Humble participants: Why exactly are we building this pool? Is it for our 300 high school swimmers? Is it for our community? Or are we funding an economic development project with taxpayer money to make Humble ISD a “destination district,” and is it a school district’s role to fund such efforts? Can the area support two or more pools of this nature, given that Conroe ISD has already locked down much of the tournament business?

The answer came back from the committee: no costly pool, no rosy economic development promises and no to trying to compete against other districts.

The community must also consider the true cost of the pool. With a base price of $51.5 million, and interest payments over 30 years that are 75 percent of the principal, the natatorium’s total actual cost is closer to $90 million, leaving many uncomfortable recommending a go-forward proposal to commit that much funding to an effort that is still very undefined.

Jacqueline Havelka
Author: Jacqueline HavelkaEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
I am a rocket scientist turned writer. I worked at Lockheed Martin-Johnson Space Center for many years managing experiments on the Space Station and Shuttle, and I now own my own firm, Inform Scientific, specializing in technical and medical writing and research program management. I am a contributing correspondent to The Tribune, a Kingwood resident for 12 years, and proud mom to two Aggie sons.

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