Chanute city commissioners took steps Monday evening to reverse their previous decision and open the Maring Aquatic Center.
The commission adopted a strategic plan submitted by Commissioner Sam Budreau with the objective of opening the full facility July 4. The vote was 4-1, with Mayor Jacob LaRue opposed.
The commission previously voted at its May 26 meeting against opening the pool this year, mostly due to a lack of lifeguards to staff the full aquatic center. Since then there has been a show of support, including a petition that collected more than 1,000 signatures in favor of opening the pool.
Under social distancing guidelines issued as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), mass gatherings were opened Monday for up to 45 people, but the commission meeting remained limited to 15 people in attendance. Outside of the meeting, Assistant City Manager Ryan Follmer said the commission chamber did not have enough space to allow six feet between people.
A group of aquatic center supporters gathered in the parking lot across the street from Memorial Hall and telephoned in with their comments during the public forum.
Interim City Manager Todd Newman said the main issue at the last meeting was the lack of staffing at the pool.
Budreau’s plan includes raising the hourly pay for lifeguards to or above market value to attract applicants. He also included a sign-on bonus of $150 as an incentive, and a bonus of $50 to $100 for a current lifeguard who recruits an applicant for lifeguard. Those who stay until the close of the pool season would also receive a bonus of $200.
If the plan does not produce enough lifeguards, management would look at reducing the number of hours and days the pool is open.
The city would get the pool ready to open, which Budreau maintained is a city asset that otherwise would be dormant.
In accepting the plan, commissioners did not discuss a deadline for applications.
“I have a whole stack,” Commissioner Phil Chaney said. He estimated that he has 20 applicants because would-be lifeguards were told earlier the pool would be closed.
“It’s a weird year,” Chaney said. “Nothing happened the way it was supposed to.”
Newman said that in a normal year, lifeguards would be recruited at the high school’s job fair and park department staff would get the pool ready before lifeguards are hired. The pool normally opens around Memorial Day.
Newman said the pool will likely close the first week of August, leaving a season of only four to five weeks. He said activities before classes begin often draw staff away from the pool. City officials are unsure if the Chanute school district will try to open classes early.
This year, classes and the job fair were cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Newman said park staff could get the pool ready in about a week and a half, but it would divert them from park and cemetery work.
He said if the city takes applications this week, next week can be used on background checks and drug screening. Commissioners discussed having aquatic director and interim recreation director Monica Colborn provide Red Cross certification instruction.
But a proposal to have volunteers assist with pool preparation did not seem feasible.
“This is way different to having a pool in your backyard,” Newman said, adding that he would not want teenagers in the pump room, although volunteers could assist with sanitizing and disinfecting the aquatic center.
LaRue said his objection was the fact the commission tabled its decision on the closure from May 11 to 25 to see how many applicants the city received. There was little response during that period, but with so many applicants now, LaRue wondered how many would be viable.
An online application was viewed 4,200 times.
“We’re taking the risk and it’s well worth it,” Commissioner Tim Fairchild said.
A group of five parents and former lifeguards addressed the commission in favor of opening the pool during the public comments portion of the meeting.
The commission discussed the downtown revitalization and historic district committee, but took no action.
Chaney said that with the most recent sales tax approval benefitting the Chanute Regional Development Authority and the city, it seems an opportune time to look at the issue. He said his family took a four-day tour of Kansas communities, and looked at both historic downtowns and those with business activity.
But Commissioner Kevin Berthot said the sales tax is earmarked to improve and maintain city-owned buildings, not private buildings and businesses. Follmer said he would prepare a list of city-owned properties and their needs for a future meeting.
Commissioners also met with CRDA and Southeast Kansas Regional Planning Commission Director Matt Godinez and approved agreements for the 2020 Community Development Block Grant to provide COVID-related business assistance.
The commission approved a Neighborhood Revitalization Program application from ASH Real Estate, and approved resolutions to declare properties at 1112 N. Forest, owned by Ronald and Evelyn Allison and Matthew Love; 1201 S. Garfield, owned by Donald Webb; and 601 N. Garfield, owned by Randy Cain, in violation of city code.