The Gus Young pool historically served as a bit of a haven for young people and families in its low-income Baton Rouge neighborhood.
But the Baton Rouge recreation and park commission plans to demolish the pool in August, taking away what some in this predominately black community call both a landmark and a bright spot where many children learned how to swim in an area otherwise lacking in recreation options.
BREC leaders say the pool has exceeded its life expectancy and that repairing or replacing it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars that the publicly funded agency does not have. They say, too, that the pool didn’t get many visitors before it was shut down two years ago, averaging about five a day, aside from classes or other group activities.
If private donors come forward, BREC leaders say they could build a $500,000 splash pad full of fountains and water sprays in place of the pool. But without private donations, the options for a pool replacement include, for example, a multi-purpose pavilion, a mini extreme sports park and a sand volleyball court.
Community leaders and residents in the neighborhood say they are not even interested in a splash pad, let alone one of the other options. They want a pool.
“It must be a pool,” said the Rev. Richard Andrus, pastor of St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church on Gus Young Avenue. “A splash pad, that’s good for little kids. You need something that serves the needs, not just of little kids, but the whole community — teenagers and adults — something that draws people.”
One area resident, Elwin “Bobby” Burns, said he has collected more than 1,400 names on a petition to keep the pool open. He plans to submit the petition to Mayor-President Kip Holden, Metro Councilwoman C. Denise Marcelle, BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight and BREC Commission Chairman Kenneth Riche Jr.
Having a fun place to cool off during the muggy summers is only part of the importance of the Gus Young pool, neighbors say. They are also worried about children having an opportunity to learn how to swim.
Burns said his children learned to swim at the Gus Young pool decades ago and Marcelle, who represents the district where the pool is located, also said her brothers and sisters learned to swim at the pool.
“We don’t have our schools; we don’t have an emergency room,” Burns said. “When you leave a person with nothing but negative, what do you expect them to do?”
BREC has spent millions of dollars building aquatic features and splash pads throughout the parish over the past several years thanks to the “Imagine Your Parks” property taxes. The agency spent $7.2 million building Liberty Lagoon Water Park on Lobdell Avenue, which includes water slides, a lazy river and a vortex pool that spins swimmers around.
BREC also spent millions of dollars adding “learn to swim pools” and splash pads in different parts of the parish. BREC has designated the City-Brooks Community Park Pool, Howell Community Park Pool and Anna T. Jordan Community Park Pool as sites where people can learn how to swim.
BREC’s aquatics plan calls for the organization to only add water features to larger community parks rather than the smaller neighborhood ones like Gus Young. BREC has closed multiple pools at other neighborhood parks over the past few years.
While other pools were receiving face-lifts and splash pads were being built, the Gus Young swimming pool grew older and, by summer 2013, could not meet health code circulation requirements. BREC closed the pool that summer and again kept it closed last year.
The Gus Young pool now sits behind a black fence that has a blue tarp hung around it, blocking people from seeing what it looks like. The pool still has dirty and murky water in it, and faded signs say “no diving” and mark the pool’s depth.
The closest swimming options to people in the neighborhood are the YMCA’s A.C. Lewis Pool about 1.5 miles away and BREC’s Howell Community Park Pool about 2 miles away. BREC has a partnership with the YMCA pools.
People who live near the Gus Young pool can learn to swim at the other nearby BREC and YMCA pools, said Dale Auzenne, BREC’s assistant superintendent for recreation programs and facilities. Auzenne said the Gus Young pool saw an average of 34 percent fewer visitors annually from 2009 to 2012 compared with the Anna T. Jordan pool.
BREC reported that 101 people are registered for swim lessons at the YMCA’s A.C. Lewis facility on South Foster Drive who normally would be taking swim lessons at the Gus Young pool.
“We have different options around the parish to serve communities that don’t have pools,” Auzenne said. “We now offer more aquatic options than we ever did.”
But Marcelle said the other options in the parish are not viable for many who live in the Gus Young neighborhood. She said many people do not own cars and cannot get to other pools, which means that the children won’t learn how to swim.
“What mother would allow her child to walk to that pool?” she asked about the Howell Park pool 2 miles away. “In many instances, they don’t have the resources to get over there.”
Marcelle said she sees the possibility of a splash pad at the park as a “happy medium” but that she intends to meet with BREC before holding a meeting with constituents to get a sense of what they might want to replace the pool. She said she is sponsoring two bus trips for kids in her district to swim and play at Liberty Lagoon this summer.
BREC, which has a $69 million budget annually, has been moving toward building more splash pads and fewer pools in recent years because splash pads are cheaper and easier to maintain. It would cost BREC $335,000 to repair the Gus Young pool and an extra $120,000 to repair the clubhouse, according to a Gus Young fact sheet. Replacing the pool would cost $400,000, while building a new splash pad would cost more than $500,000.
Finding the private money to build a splash pad is still a problem for BREC.
“Our hope is to be able to work with the community and maybe a private donor,” McKnight said.
The maintenance cost for a pool is more than $50,000 a year, and hiring lifeguards to watch over the pool adds another $40,000 expense, according to Auzenne.
Splash pads only cost about $6,700 a year to maintain, and they do not require the additional labor costs for lifeguards, Auzenne said. That means BREC could maintain 13 splash pads a year for the same amount of money needed to maintain the Gus Young pool.
Regardless, Andrus said his congregation overwhelmingly supports keeping the swimming pool open, and he and Marcelle are planning to meet with BREC leaders. Burns is using the mantra “swimming versus stealing, fun versus fatality, children versus crime” to make his neighbors aware of the importance of the pool in the community.
BREC’s forecast date for permanently closing and filling in the pool is Aug. 1.