No life preserver found for aquatic center at city council meeting

ABERDEEN, S.D. (By Scott Waltman – While the city has adequate reserve funds to offset any losses incurred by the Aberdeen Aquatic Center this summer, it’s not likely to open.

During its Tuesday night meeting, the Aberdeen City Council discussed whether there was a way to open the aquatic center, but no action was taken.

City Manager Lynn Lander said the city had roughly $6.5 million in unallocated general funds at the start of the year. However, he said, he doesn’t have the authority to decide how to spend that money. Only the council does.

Last week, the park board decided not to open the aquatic center this summer, citing both financial and safety concerns amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Parks, Recreation and Forestry Director Mark Hoven called it a consensus decision, “and it was petty much 6-0.”

Mayor Travis Schaunaman said he spoke to some park board members who would have felt differently if not for finances. He asked if the council could consider voting on some type of resolution to offer the park board an assurance the city could offset any losses.

That, though, did not happen. Councilman Ron Ronayne noted it could not because it was not on the agenda.

Councilman Clint Rux said the city should respect the decision of the park board, which is comprised of volunteers. And Councilman David Bunsness said the park board’s decision wasn’t based solely on money.

Hoven said the budget was the top issue for the park board. But logistics, staffing and safety were also concerns. He said it might be difficult to find enough lifeguards this summer and there were also concerns about people having to wait to get into the center with the pool having reduced capacity to decrease the risk of spreading the virus.

Last summer, Hoven said, there were 36 lifeguards. Before last week’s park board meeting, he said, Travis Lemer, aquatics and recreation supervisor, had about 20 lifeguards for this summer. But some have moved on since the park board’s decision, Hoven said.

He said the park board gave the topic due diligence and and believes it made the right decision.

Aquatic centers in South Dakota’s other larger cities, including Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Brookings, Mitchell and Spearfish are not opening this summer, he said.

Given Hoven’s comments, Councilman Mark Remily said there was no reason to continue discussion about opening the aquatic center, though talk did last a bit longer.

Eventually, though, Ronayne interjected and said the park board has already made its decision. He then moved to adjourn the council meeting.

Tuesday night, the Watertown Parks, Recreation and Forestry Board voted unanimously to keep that town’s aquatic center closed this summer.

If the Aberdeen center stays closed, the city will likely incur $10,000 to $15,000 in losses — to cover ongoing expenses like utilities and some salaries — as opposed to $75,000 to $150,000 as the result of limited capacity and opening later than usual in the summer.

A potential opening plan discussed at last week’s council meeting would have limited attendance to 300 people at any given time and split swim times into two three-hour sessions each day with time in between for sanitation. Normally, capacity is 1,400.

During time designated for public comments, Clark Thares of Aberdeen asked the council to consider the limited capacity option. He said he has two special needs kids who can’t play other sports during the summer. The aquatic center is where they spend time with friends during the warm months.

Thares noted the city had ample reserves, but also discussed a more personal reason, quoting Al Pacino’s character Col. Frank Slade in “Scent of a Woman.”

“There is nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that,” Thares said in trying to convey what his kids could miss this summer.