By Donald Wittkowski
Pool? Or no pool? That is Sea Isle City’s $20 million question.
After two hours of discussion, comments from nearly 40 residents and a whirlwind of cost estimates, there was no consensus among the public whether Sea Isle should include an indoor pool if the city redevelops the old school into a community recreation center.
The proposed project was discussed Saturday during a town hall meeting attended by about 200 residents inside the former public school’s muggy gymnasium. There was no working air-conditioning inside the antiquated 1970s-era building to cool the crowd on a sweltering morning.
Sea Isle is studying different options for transforming the old red-brick school at 4501 Park Road into a recreation complex. Development costs range from $2 million to $20 million, depending on what would be built.
Having a recreation center that includes a pool would be the most expensive option, costing an estimated $17 million to $20 million.
City officials said they want to gather as much public feedback as possible before any decisions are made on the final cost and design of the school’s redevelopment – or whether to even go forward with the project.
“Everyone is going to have a voice in what we’re going to do with this building,” Mayor Leonard Desiderio assured the audience in opening remarks at the town meeting.
Based on the comments from 36 residents and property owners who spoke at the meeting, it appears most people favor building an entirely new recreation facility instead of renovating the old school. However, opinions are split on whether it should include an indoor pool.
Supporters said a community pool would make Sea Isle more family friendly, would draw new visitors to town and would be a place where children could safely learn how to swim. They also said swimming would provide good exercise for senior citizens.
Jamie Mulholland, a Sea Isle resident who was a member of an ad hoc committee that studied the project for the city, said a new community center that includes a pool would be the town’s “crown jewel.”
Mulholland also said such a project would attract “hundreds of thousands of visitors,” in addition to serving Sea Isle’s year-round population of about 2,000 residents.
“We believe that if you build it, they will come,” she said.
Brian Heritage, who also served on the ad hoc committee and is the owner of Heritage Surf & Sport, said a pool would represent an investment in Sea Isle’s future. He believes it would be the type of community amenity that would attract more young families to live in the city.
“This is an investment in the future for the next 50 years,” Heritage said.
Detractors, though, characterized the pool as an expensive luxury that would inflate the tax rate, would be little-used and would cost too much to maintain each year.
“The pool’s cost is a never-ending sinkhole of money. Whose money? Our money,” said Bob Germscheid, referring to taxpayers.
Germscheid, who lives in West Chester, Pa., and is a summer resident of Sea Isle, went on to call a pool “a folly.”
“It’s a dead end,” he said.
Ernie Marcacci, another opponent of a pool, conducted an impromptu poll of the audience to support his argument that a pool would not be widely used by senior citizens.
First he asked the senior citizens at the meeting to raise their hands if they planned to swim in the pool if it is included in a recreation center. Then he asked for a show of hands from seniors who would not use a pool.
In making a quick count, Marcacci said it was close to an equal split between seniors would use a pool and those who would not.
“Personally, I think a swimming pool is a luxury. It’s something we don’t need,” said Marcacci, who has owned property in Sea Isle for nearly 50 years.
In 2015, the city conducted a community survey asking the public for suggestions on what should be done with the old school. The highest number of respondents, or 36 percent, proposed having the building redeveloped as a park or recreation site. The second-highest response was to use the property as a parking lot.
Sea Isle is conducting a new survey to gather public feedback on the prospect of converting the school building into a recreation complex.
The old school, built in 1971, occupies an entire block bordered by Park Road, Central Avenue, 45th Street and 46th Street. The school closed in 2012 due to the city’s declining student population.
The building is currently used for office space, storage, special events, community programs and public recreation in the gymnasium. City officials said the building is in need of a new heating and air-conditioning system, a modern gym, new windows and doors and new handicap-accessible bathrooms.
Three options are under consideration: Renovating the former school for recreation, demolishing the old building and developing an entirely new recreation center or constructing a new recreation complex that would include an indoor pool.
The cost of renovating the building into a recreation complex is estimated at $2 million, the cheapest of the three options the city is studying. The building, though, does not meet current flood standards.
Katherine Custer, the city’s director of Community Services, said the construction cost for a new recreation facility that does not include a pool would be between $13 million and $16 million.
The cost of building a new recreation center is estimated at $17 million to $20 million if a pool is included, Custer said. In addition, it would cost an estimated $500,000 to $1 million annually for maintenance and staffing of a pool.
During the meeting, City Business Administrator George Savastano discussed the tax implications of renovating the old school or building a new recreation complex. He based the figures on an average Sea Isle home assessed at $700,000.
There would be no increase in local taxes if the city simply renovated the school, Savastano said.
If the city built a recreation center without a pool, the estimated construction cost of $13 million to $16 million would add between $100 and $200 annually in local taxes for 12 years. After 12 years, the project would be paid off, according to Savastano.
The estimated $17 million to $20 million construction cost for a recreation center that has a pool would result in an extra $300 to $400 in local taxes annually for 12 years, he said.
Savastano repeatedly stressed to the audience that no final decisions have been made by city officials about the proposed recreation center. No timetable has been given for building the project.
Ultimately, it would be up to the community to choose between the three options that are on the table – or simply build nothing at all, Savastano said.
“I have been consistent in saying, there is no hurry here,” he said. “We have been deliberate. If the community says wait a little longer, we’ll wait a little longer. … This is a community decision.”