The Columbia Association is about to open its 23 outdoor swimming pools for the season, after slathering on 400 gallons of pool paint, hiring about 200 lifeguards and caulking all the decking that Old Man Winter heaved this way and that.
Now comes the hard part.
As the pools open for the season May 26, Columbia officials will begin pondering the future of the community's most popular and expensive recreational amenity. A recent study lays out some exciting possibilities, but also tough choices, for a $5.2 million-a-year aquatics program that generates about $3.2 million in annual revenue.
A private consultant who conducted the $25,000 pool study for the council found that Columbia has at least four times as many pools as the average city its size needs. In addition to its outdoor pools, the homeowners association operates four indoor pools: two at a swim center with a four-story flume and two in Columbia Association fitness centers.
"The population of Columbia, approaching 90,000, would suggest the need for three or four outdoor pool complexes and one or two indoor pools, according to national recreation planning standards," David Markey, of Markey and Associates in Kennesaw, Ga., wrote in his March report.
But, Markey added, Columbia is no average city when it comes to pool use. Annual attendance at the outdoor pools is nearly 500,000, the report notes. Pool visits in comparable communities average 30,000 to 100,000 a year, it said.
"The obvious conclusion is that Columbia has achieved great success with their outdoor pools, and that there is little need for major systemic changes," Markey wrote. "Rather, there are opportunities for even greater enhancements and fine-tuning, as well as economizing as CA matures."
Markey suggests phasing out some older outdoor pools - a political hot potato in Columbia, where neighborhood pools are considered a basic service akin to water and garbage pickup.
While association staff members and the newly elected Columbia Council are still digesting Markey's report, aquatics Director John Herdson stressed, "There are no plans to close any pools at this time."
Markey also suggests enhancing some pools with features such as a "lazy river," where bathers float on inner tubes along a looping channel of slow-moving water. To increase swimming capacity in winter, he proposes enclosing one outdoor pool, possibly Steven's Forest, with a removable $1 million bubble or a $2.5 million greenhouse with retractable roof.
He says some outdoor pools might be converted to specialty uses, gearing some for adults, others for families with children.
Markey also found that the indoor Columbia Swim Center in Wilde Lake will need $3.75 million in renovations over the next 10 years, and probably will have to be replaced, despite those improvements, in 10 to 15 years. A new swim center will cost $7 million to $14 million, depending on whether the Columbia Association decides to upgrade as it replaces the 30-year-old facility.
The need to repair, replace and upgrade Columbia's aging stock of pools comes at a time when the 34-year-old planned community is seeing its revenues taper off.
Rob Goldman, vice president of the association's sport and fitness division, said Markey's recommendations will have to be considered with community input and as part of a broad strategic plan to be developed by the council.
"It's going to percolate, a lot of that," Goldman said of Markey's suggestions. "I think it's a great springboard for discussion."