Despite the controversy that engulfed the Gus Young Swimming Pool when it was filled in last summer, the pool has been all but absent from this summer’s conversations about swimming.
When the Baton Rouge recreation and parks commission announced last year that it would fill in the out-of-date Gus Young Pool, it became a flash point for conversations about geographic divides, race and the equitable distribution of recreation facilities across the community. Political leaders squabbled with BREC officials until they reached a compromise in which a private developer would help to build a new pool by 2020, and possibly other amenities, at the Gus Young park.
The progress on that proposal has inched along slowly since then, and the nonprofit organization expected to raise money for the pool is still in the process of being created.
The developer who came forward last summer, Full Circle Development Chief Executive Officer Rinaldi Jacobs, Sr., said he knew then that finding a new path forward for the Gus Young pool would be a lengthy task even though some are already impatient.
“In approaching this project, the first thing I told people was, ‘You will not see a pool in 2016,’” Jacobs said.
Elwin “Bobby” Burns, a resident in the Eden Park neighborhood who helped lead the campaign last summer against closing the pool, said he has already lost faith in the effort. Burns collected 1,400 names on a petition to keep the pool open last summer.
He worries that the promises made last year and the momentum behind building a new pool were not earnest.
“I don’t think there was any energy anywhere,” Burns said. “All they were doing was posturing.”
The Gus Young pool historically served as a bit of a haven for young people and families in …
But Jacobs said the slow movement is because he doesn’t want to simply rebuild the Gus Young Pool, which fell into disrepair in 2013 and remained closed in the following years until its demolition. The pool mostly served children during the summer months.
Jacobs said he wants a new kind of pool at the park, one that could be used year-round. He envisions school children learning to swim there and elderly and disabled people exercising in the water and injured people going there for physical therapy. The nonprofit in the works to raise money for it will be called Swim For Life.
Jacobs said he would not disclose how much money the group has secured for their plans until the nonprofit structure has been created. But he said he has reached out to aquatic groups, philanthropic groups and foundations to determine how much money in grants would be available for the new pool.
He said funds are available but “we’re not going to activate” them until the process of establishing the tax-exempt nonprofit group is completed.
Jacobs said he expects it to cost around $2 million to build the type of pool he envisions, but one of the sticking points is finding a money source to maintain the pool. BREC said last year that it would have cost the agency $400,000 to replace the Gus Young Pool and another $92,000 annually to maintain it.
BREC Superintendent Carolyn McKnight said she has not heard many updates lately about the plans to build a new pool.
“We are waiting patiently from the group raising private money,” McKnight said.
When BREC said the Gus Young Pool would be filled in last year,park officials cited a new operating model where larger, community parks — such as Howell Park and Anna T. Jordan Park — would have water features but smaller, neighborhood parks like Gus Young would not.
State Sen. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, was on the Metro Council at the time and represented the neighborhood around the pool last summer. She pushed back, saying black children needed a place to learn how to swim and an outlet for recreation and fun in their low-income neighborhood.
When BREC said children who normally visited Gus Young could go to the YMCA’s A.C. Lewis Pool 1.5 miles away, Marcelle said many did not have access to transportation and that walking so far would be dangerous.
But a year later, BREC said its ZIP code tracking shows that children in the neighborhoods who would have gone to the Gus Young Pool are going to the other pools nearby.
BREC officials also said a program they offered where people can sign up to be driven from the Gus Young Pool to another pool — for those who do not have the means to transport themselves — hasn’t had a single person sign up for it.
Meanwhile, BREC is in the process of a more than $1 million renovation of the recreation center at the Gus Young Park. It will be one of the first of BREC’s recreation centers to have air conditioning in the gym. BREC is also adding a recreational activity room, office and storage rooms, better exterior lighting, new security cameras and more.
Marcelle said the kids who attend a free summer camp at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center on Gus Young Avenue used to spend many afternoons swimming at the Gus Young Pool. She said the children this summer simply are not swimming instead of going to a different pool, and she is trying to organize a visit for them later this summer to BREC’s Liberty Lagoon water park.
“I just want to encourage BREC to remember that [Gus Young] community is a community that needs a swimming pool so that kids learn how to swim,” she said.
Jacobs, Marcelle and Burns all said that they are concerned by BREC’s more recent focus on offering splash pads instead of pools. Splash pads cost about the same amount of money to build as pools, but they are about 13 times cheaper to maintain, based on past BREC budgets.
BREC has six splash pads across Baton Rouge. Jacobs, Marcelle and Burns all pointed out in recent interviews that splash pads may help children cool off but they do not teach kids how to swim.
Jacobs said the Gus Young park should not just be looked at through the lens of its pool. He pointed to adjudicated property that the city now owns nearby the park and questioned what could happen if the Gus Young Park was expanded and became a bright spot for development in the community.
As for the shift in emotion from a year ago, Jacobs said the passion to make something happen at Gus Young is still there.
“It’s not about being angry,” Jacobs said. “It’s about being aggressively invested in the community and using our tax dollars acutely and wisely.”