Citizens ask to save Natatorium; city plan remains closure by Dec. 31

Swimmers of all ages lamented the planned closure of the Natatorium and asked the city to reconsider during Tuesday’s commission meeting.

For roughly an hour, residents said they use the Nat, love the Nat and want to keep the Nat, but commissioners said the plan remains the same.

The Natatorium will close by Dec. 31 and be razed shortly thereafter.

The plan to close the Natatorium was included in the city manager’s budget proposal, which was presented to commissioners in late June.

The Natatorium is funded in the budget through the entire fiscal year but will operate normally until Dec. 31 and the remaining funds will be used for closure, demolition and securing the site.

The land the pool sits on was donated to the city and has a deed restriction that it must be used for recreational activities.

Commissioners did not make any changes to that plan, though they have said they want to find alternatives for swimmers in the meantime and begin planning for a future municipal aquatics facility.

Commissioner Mary Moe had concerns about closing the Nat since there are people in the community who use it for health reasons and it’s available for swimming at a much lower cost than the Peak.
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But through budget discussions and the structural assessments, she said she’s been convinced that the building is no longer safe for public use and repairs would be throwing good money after bad instead of investing in a new facility.

“We are working hard to find something for after Dec. 31 when the Natatorium will close,” Moe said Tuesday.

The former Park and Recreation director recommended closure of the Nat in 2015.

Many of those speaking Tuesday said they have health conditions that limit their ability to exercise and swimming is the only option.

The city has accepted Medicaid for aquatic/pool therapy programs and The Electric confirmed with Benefis Health System that “through the Medicaid waiver program, aquatic/pool therapy is covered through a paid membership to the Peak if the patient meets certain criteria, as verified by his or her licensed healthcare provider. There is also a program known as ‘Silver Sneakers’ for patients covered under a certain Medicare Advantage plan, and one of the benefits under that program is the ability to use the Peak at no cost,” according to Benefis. The Peak also accepts Silver Fit, an insurance coverage for seniors.

City staff have been meeting with other agencies that operate indoor pools such as the Peak, Great Falls Public Schools, the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind and the Great Falls Lodging Association.

In July, the aquatics manager told the Park and Recreation Advisory Board that the pool at the MSDB was too small for swimming lessons or other programming. The manager has since visited the facility, which has been closed for several years for repairs, and determined it could be a workable option.
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In considering a future indoor pool, city staff said the current location is not suitable for another pool but could consider other park properties and it would likely be a multi-million dollar project.

“Pubic pools often do not generate enough revenue to self-fund construction, operations and maintenance. The general fund can only support the aquatics program to a certain extent,” City Manager Greg Doyon wrote last week in a memo to commissioners. “Therefore, the community may want to explore a multi-purpose facility with more that a single revenue stream.”

The newly created park maintenance district could potentially generate enough funding to cover debt service for a new facility, but the district was established to address the $12 million in deferred maintenance within the city’s Park and Recreation Department, Doyon wrote.
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Community Development Block Grant funds could also potentially be used for a feasibility study on a new pool or construction, but CDBG funds aren’t designed to sustain programs, Doyon wrote.

A GoFundMe campaign was started to save the Natatorium, but that isn’t affiliated with the city and has raised $95 over the last month.

Deputy City Manager Chuck Anderson recommended that those who want to support the aquatics program donate through the People’s Park and Recreation Foundation, which has actively pursued improvements to the city’s park system for years and has already created a special fund for the Nat or it’s replacement.
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Nat supporters have fundraised for years and raised about $37,000 in available funding that is being held in that foundation account for use in support of the city’s aquatics program.

The decision to close the Nat came after bricks fell off the exterior of the building earlier this year, exposing additional problems with the facade and roof with repairs at an estimated $539,834 to $613,088.
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The current Nat was built in 1966, after its predecessor on the same site was closed in 1963 due to significant settling throughout the building causing walls to shift, the pool to leak and the foundation to crack, according to Doyon’s memo.

A 2011 study found masonry staining, groundwater concerns, water leakage in the basement and other nonstructural issues. The high water table at the site was also a concern in the report and it recommended projects totaling $997,114 that should be done over 1 to 50 years, according to city records.
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Since then, the city has partially removed the top of nonbearing load walls to allow for foundational movement, mud jacking and door replacement.

Since 2004, the city has also done more than $357,939 in repairs including roof repairs, ventilation tunnels around the pool were filled with concrete since they were in danger of collapsing, a new pool liner, drain pipe liner, boiler replacement, pool desk resurfacing, asbestos testing, southwest corner to women’s locker room lifted due to cracks and settling in foundation, doors and door jams replaced.
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According to city records, the total annual users for the Natatorium in 2015 was 22,507 users, which includes repeat users. In 2016 the total was 29,665; in 2017 the total was 26,068 and as of mid-July this year, it was 16,004.

For comparison, at Electric City Water Park, the total users in 2016 from June-September was 27,324; in 2015 it was 24,894.

Earlier this year, city staff proposed a 50 cent increase for open swim at some pools to generate some revenue for operational costs, but commissioners rejected the increase and the additional revenue would have been far from enough to cover needed repairs at the Natatorium.