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Free swimming could return to Spokane municipal pools this summer

City of Spokane pools will offer free admission for adults and children starting this summer. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
City of Spokane pools will offer free admission for adults and children starting this summer. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

For the first time since 1982, Spokane swimmers may be able to dive into the deep end of city pools without diving into their wallets.

The Spokane Park Board is scheduled to vote Thursday on a resolution eliminating entry fees at six municipal pools this summer. It would be the first time children wouldn’t have to pay to swim since 2008, and the first free summer for grown-ups since Jim Chase’s mayoral administration.

“We want to give everybody a chance to swim,” said Jennifer Papich, recreation director for the Spokane Parks Department. “We tried different things to get people into the pools. We just want to reduce those barriers.”

The proposal would use reserve funds to pay for the free swimming this season. Ticket sales account for an average $200,000 of yearly revenue, Papich said, which falls well short of the more than $1 million cost to keep the system running.

“I think when we really ran the numbers, we saw that revenue amount was a relatively small gap to fill,” she said.

The expense would be absorbed into the Spokane Parks Department budget moving forward. For 2018, that spending is expected to total $21.7 million.

The switch would also allow the city to trim some of those expenses. That would include cutting cashiers who accepted the money paid in entry fees and no longer covering the cost of using armored car companies to pick up the cash collected at the till. A staff lifeguard would still be posted at entrances to ensure rules are being followed and that entry doesn’t exceed capacity, Papich said.

Concessions would also be discontinued at municipal pools, she said, but staff would allow in some outside food and drink and the city is exploring automated vending options.

The change will require approval from the full Spokane Park Board. Sally Lodato, who oversees the board’s committee on recreation, said she didn’t anticipate much resistance to the plan. Dropping entry fees would likely boost attendance at the pools, she said, which would hopefully lead to more residents learning how to swim in a region awash with natural bodies of water.

“We live with a lot of rivers and lakes, and water all around,” Lodato said. “The ability to reach out, and get people comfortable with the water when there’s no financial barrier, is a huge benefit right there.”

The Spokane Parks Foundation, a nonprofit supporting the region’s outdoor recreation options, has administered the “Make-a-Splash” program for the past several years, which covered entry costs for low-income families hoping to swim. That program will still be available for other regional pools with entry fees, like in Spokane County, Spokane Valley and Cheney, said Terri Fortner, executive director of the Parks Foundation.

The organization will seek to expand its financial support of swimming lessons in the community, Fortner said, which may be in higher demand as access to local pools becomes more prevalent.

“We’re going to have a lot of kids that need to learn how to swim,” she said. “It’s amazing that the city has figured out a way to do this.”

Free swimming used to be standard at city pools. From the opening of the first municipal aquatics center in 1914 until 1982, swimmers weren’t required to pay an entry fee at Spokane pools. After a single summer of charging children 30 cents in 1982, the city reversed course and eliminated the fee for kids, but kept it for adults as officials debated how to continue funding maintenance for public pools.

The issue reared its head again in 2007, after voters approved $43 million in bonds to pay to rebuild aging facilities and build a new aquatics center at Shadle Park. Two years later, the Spokane Park Board imposed a $1 entry fee for minors and $2 for adults. Those amounts doubled the next year, again to pay for planned maintenance at the new facilities.

Fees have remained flat since then.

The city will continue to charge for lessons, facility rentals and swim team sign-ups. All fees that have already been paid for the 2018 swim season will be refunded, if the Park Board approves the resolution at their regularly scheduled meeting Thursday, 3:30 p.m. at City Hall, 808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.

Spokane’s swim season is scheduled to begin June 18 and end Aug. 25 this year. Witter Aquatics Center, at Mission Park, will open May 7 and close Sept. 14.


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