By Leslee Kulba- The Buncombe County Commissioners’ chambers were crowded. 100 people were seated, and another fifty stood in the back. Most wore goggles as a sign of solidarity. County Manager Dr. Wanda Greene provided an update on Parks and Recreation Director Fran Thigpen’s presentation from a couple weeks prior. Thigpen had discussed findings, in terms of public input and estimated costs, for a few options for replacing the pool at Zeugner Center.
Green explained the county had purchased the pool from the Skyland Recreation Association in 1964 for $217,000. The county has since spent $1.3 million on repairs and maintenance. The pool is the only covered one in the county, and it is also the oldest. The other public pools are only 15-20 years old. At the last meeting, there was interest in a low-cost solution of making the current outdoor pools indoor by covering them with a “bubble.” Greene said further study at the commissioners’ request has indicated that, given the age of the pools, the bubbling solution would not be worth the hassle.
In 2008, the county traded some land with Buncombe Schools with the intention of building a new covered pool. Then, the recession hit. The county has not lost sight of that goal even though it has had more pressing priorities for finite resources.
The current plan is to keep Zeugner, which Thigpen had said had reached the end of its useful life, open for the duration of the swim season. In two years, the county hopes to have a new pool, but the outstanding questions were how much of an expenditure the commissioners wanted to authorize and where the kids would swim in the interim. The county is currently in negotiations with owners of suitable interim pools. In three weeks, Greene hoped to be able to make an announcement about finalized deals. She said she would welcome any help from the public in trying to resolve the matter, trying to balance the demand from the swimmers with respect for taxpayer resources.
No public hearing had been scheduled, so the commissioners listened to the swimmers for almost two hours during their meeting’s informal public comment period. Before long, it was apparent no new information would be provided, nor did anybody have a specific solution. They all wanted the same thing: to keep Zeugner open until a new pool came online. They argued the pool kept them off the streets, contributed to their scholastic excellence, kept them fit, and provided them with friends. They only applied emotional force to the commissioners with their charm and personal anecdotes. They put, as it were, a mosaic of goggled “faces on the problem.”
Jim Cottam, the swim coach at TC Roberson High, was given ten minutes to speak on behalf of twenty-five students present. He said he had been working in the area for seventeen years, and there was no suitable alternative to Zeugner. He provided stats on how the pool handles the bulk of high-school swim meets for Western North Carolina, and how those on swim teams are consistently at the top of their class. Perhaps contradicting his thesis, he recalled a couple times when the county interrupted the swimming season to work on the pool. “At one time, the people were told there was a leak so big that a bus could fit in under the pool, that the pool was going to swallow up and take the swimmers with them, and that was by a Buncombe County staff member,” he recollected.
AC Reynolds’ coach Eric Vess said there was a lot of expertise in the room that could be tapped for constructing a new pool. He was disappointed that nobody with the county had asked any one of them for input in designing an aquatic center. He and others were of the impression the county could build the center at half the proposed $36 million cost. The coach from the third school that uses the pool, Eric Hyder from West Henderson High, also spoke.
Christina Long, a swimming official for a number of organizations, spoke about economic development. Contrary to Thigpen’s assertions that any pool would be a money hole, she said $18 million was spent on an aquatic center in Greenville. It returned $42 million in economic benefits its first year and holds steady at $14.5 million annually. In its first eight months of operation, it hosted nineteen events and 150,000 swimmers, all with friends and family who would spend money on room nights and dining. Asheville, she argued, was a regional hub that should be hosting big meets. “We have great competition here. We just don’t have a pool.”
Betty Jackson was one of two naysayers. She said a recurrent complaint she heard while working on a campaign for a school board candidate was that parents did not want to be coughing up money for school supplies. She asked how the county could be considering multimillion-dollar projects for schools when it couldn’t even fund the basics. She paraphrased Thomas Sowell, saying the first rule of economics is scarcity, and the first rule of politics is to ignore the first rule of economics. She suggested swimming enthusiasts spearhead a community fundraiser; the people of Buncombe are suffering in an economy that is not recovering.
Regular Jerry Rice was the other. He asked the commissioners to embrace the mountain value of putting needs before wants, “But let me tell you something about the old gray-headed people that has to pay the bill. They’re gonna go without food, they’re not gonna be able to pay their taxes, they’re not gonna get a decrease in their taxes, . . . .” He asked the kids to think of what their parents will be doing without to fulfill their wishes. At the last meeting, in response to an inquiry from Mike Fryar, Greene had estimated building the aquatic center could translate to a 1.5- or 2-cent property tax increase.