After numerous comments on the idea, Canton residents voted 106 to 38 Wednesday night to spend up to $12,500 to have a consultant further investigate the idea of converting Mills Pond Pool into a year-round facility.
Prior to the vote, Parks and Recreation Director Brian Wilson provided some background on the idea, followed by comments from residents.
Wilson and resident Rob Miller recently attended a USA Swimming Build a Pool, Save a Pool conference.
Wilson said many ideas came from the conference, including the idea of an architectural covering and year-round programming. Some of the structures can be fully removed during the summer.
“There are a lot of approaches you can take to do that,” Wilson said.
Wilson also said the town needs more answers about its demographics, cost, revenue and ability to support such a notion before moving forward.
Wilson said his did not consider the current cost of the pool a “loss” since it provides a valuable service but said there would be a lot of benefit to offering more programs, while remaining at the same level or perhaps improved sustainability.
“There’s a lot of information we don’t have,” he said. “I think conducting a study would be beneficial.”
First Selectman Richard Barlow was the first resident to speak and said he opposed the feasibility study, citing several reasons including lack of a Park and Recreation Commission’s priority list. He also said money could be saved in case planned improvements at the pool go over the $400,000 allotted. The funding for the study is separate but comes from the same account, he said.
Even if potential revenue groups are identified, Barlow also questioned whether they could be required to make long-term commitments to the facility and possibly leave the town with the costs but short on projected revenue.
Resident Rob Miller, who filed the petition seeking the special town meeting, said the motivation from him and other advocates of the plan, stemmed from a question of sustainability, not one of profit.
“What we worry about is the future of the pool,” Miller said. “I want to see the pool be sustainably financially.”
“There are alternatives," he added. "Whether they work here not is not known.”
The study would help the town answer that question, Miller said.
Resident and Parks and Recreation Commission member Ben Holden said he felt the study was not necessary and said there are higher priority recreation items such as the Lawton Road field project, refurbished Skate Park and pool house improvements.
Holden also said he felt it was a “red herring” to talk about saving the pool since the boards of selectmen and finance have shown commitment. He also said there are flaws in the business model and said the facility would be a huge energy drain.
“We ought to have the wisdom to say this energy we need not consume,” Holden said.
Park and Recreation commission Chris Eckert said that while he was not in favor of covering the existing pool, he felt the study could provide valuable information for the town. In approximately eight years, the town needs to know how it wants to proceed to replace Mills Pond Pool, he said.
“We will need this information to decide what our next generation pool will be,” he said.
Other residents brought up issues such as the proliferation of indoor facilities in the area, lack of adequate parking, possible viewing areas, the need to cover or winterize the pool house and whether a private organization could offer less expensive alternatives to the study.
But other speakers felt the town could look into other options such as on-site solar energy and said someone knowledgeable on the issue could provide better answers.
Economic Development Agency member Rob Bessel said he was skeptical of the idea but said he has seen a great commitment to swimming in town.
He said many questions do remain but that an expert could help the town sort it all out.
“That’s why we want to spend $12,500 to find out,” he said. “We’re taking about studying this thing and getting the facts.”
Parks and Recreation Commission chairwoman Rebecca Andrews said the pool is in the same predicament as many other facilities in town that have not been taken care of. While “excited” about the idea of a year-round pool, she agreed that questions remain and spoke in favor of further investigation.
“I don’t think anybody but a specialist can really tell us what all our options are,” she said.
The special town meeting took place Wednesday and was scheduled after more than 150 residents signed a petition, which was filed by Rob Miller. A provision in the charter allows residents to petition an item to town meeting.
Since the funds are already available in the Mills Pond Pool capital improvement fund, residents were able to vote to spend the money.
In late January, resident Frank Culkin, also a Parks and Recreation commissioner, presented the Board of Selectmen with a “Mills Pond Pool Revitalization Venture.” It purported the idea could bring the pool to sustainability and even profitability. He asked the board to consider the study and said a USA swimming grant could reimburse the town for $4,000 of its costs.
Most board members, however, raised questions and Barlow said selectmen had clearly asked the Park and Recreation Commission for a recommendation.
Culkin acknowledged the commission had not yet reached a consensus but said the goal was to proceed with the idea should the town want to consider any related bonding this spring.
When selectmen did not take action that night, the petition was filed the next week.
Subsequently the park and rec commission voted to support the study. While some members were absent there were enough present to validate the 3-1 commission vote.
Wednesday, town meeting attendees also voted to move forward. From here, selectmen will likely seek bids from firms interested in conducting the study.