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Swimmers Grow Weary of Talk, Demand Answers As To Swim Center’s Fate

Infrastructure is one of — if not the — most essential aspect of city services. Even just general maintenance of things such as streets, sewers and power lines gobbles up a massive amount of a city’s budget. It is one of those things people rarely consider — until it doesn’t work. When that happens, it is usually at great cost to residents.

Cities have maintenance plans, a budget and schedule that keeps all the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the city operating. When cities put off investing in infrastructure, they call it “deferred maintenance.”

Santa Clara has roughly $500 million worth of deferred maintenance.

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Sitting and past members of the Santa Clara City Council have frequently hammered home the importance of public amenities. Some of these public amenities, along with large-scale venues like Levi’s Stadium and California’s Great America, are often cited as feathers in Santa Clara’s cap.

Perhaps no public amenity has been discussed as often as the City’s George F. Haines International Swim Center (ISC). The center features three pools: a 17-foot deep-diving pool, a 50-meter course pool and a shallow pool. The center — and the programs it hosts such as the Santa Clara Swim Club, dive team, Aquamaids and water polo — still enjoys a reputation as a premier destination for water sports.

Its storied history is one of which many Santa Clarans are proud. Many of those who have swum at the ISC have gone on to do great things in water sports, including winning numerous Olympic medals. If the ISC were a country, its 71 Olympic medals would place it 48th on the all-time list of medals by country. In 2003, Micheal Phelps broke the record for the 200-meter individual medley at the ISC.

It was the toast of the nation, perhaps even the world, when it was built in 1967. “Life” magazine even did a cover story on it the following year. But that was 56 years ago, and the pool has outlived its 25-to-30-year shelf life. Earlier this year, a boiler failed, shuttering the doors to the ISC until earlier this month.

The swimming public was furious.

Public Outcry

Turning out in droves to several City Council meetings earlier this summer, many complained about the massive inconvenience the ISC’s closing caused. At those meetings, City Manager Jovan Grogan told the public and Council that hopes of the ISC reopening this summer were misplaced, saying the “significant deferred maintenance” has led to “significant challenges.”

However, despite this, the ISC reopened Aug. 3. And, while the City was able to make accommodations for swimmers at off-site locations in the interim, the ISC did miss out on hosting several marquee meets.

Still, although the issue with the boiler has been resolved, City employees and those who use the center know it is a ticking time bomb. Something else will inevitably break. How damaging the next repair will be to ISC operations is anybody’s guess. As a result, questions as to the fate of the pool have left many scratching their heads.

Amanda Pease, president of the Santa Clara Swim Club board, said the ISC’s closure at the start of the swim season caused many swimmers to lose valuable time swimming in a pool that prepares them for highly competitive meets.

The alternative sites the City secured for swimmers were not long-course pools like the one at the ISC. Those who train for long-course events are hindered in using a pool only half the distance. Still, Pease said this pales in comparison to what else the closure took from swimmers.

“Swimming is a very individual sport. You are basically competing against yourself,” she said. “Being able to swim together, it does create a better sense of community and that you are a part of something.”

And that is not all. Sources interviewed for this story and public commenters at City Council meetings said perhaps the biggest hurdle is the havoc the ISC’s closure reeked on their kids’ routines. Parents often had to make tough decisions about which extracurriculars to prioritize.

“A lot of these kids, they don’t just swim,” Pease said. “A lot of them are in high school. They are in dance. They are in band. It messes with their schedule.”

Marcie Turner, whose 19-year-old daughter and 23-year-old son have both worked at the ISC, said whatever the inconvenience for ordinary kids, the disruption is even greater for those with special needs such as autism.

Autistic people, especially children, thrive on consistency, Turner, whose daughter has Down Syndrome and is a Special Olympic coach, said something as banal as the ISC closing can cause severe behavioral outbursts.

Many expressed similar, if not as severe, complaints. With the City having discussed building a new swim center for at least 15 years, frustration over the City’s inaction is starting to boil over.

Pease said she recently spotted a banner with Santa Clara’s slogan “The Center of What’s Possible” near the ISC. It made her laugh.

“More like what is impossible. It is so hard to get something done,” Pease said. “We are in Silicon Valley. It is a bit discouraging that we are in one of the richest places in the world, and something that really shouldn’t be that complicated is really complicated.”

Growing Frustrations

Independent of crippling infrastructure debacles like the boiler breaking, just a cursory glance reveals the ISC’s dilapidation. Rusted tiles, peeling paint and busted showers are but a few of the wrinkles in the once-magnificent building.

Given that the City has known the ISC has needed replacing for roughly 20 years, sources interviewed for this story said the excuse that the pool is old is simply lackluster.

“How or why did we allow it to get to this stage? This is not a new problem,” said Rick Rutter, a parent of two swimmers. “If [the City is] not going to invest in the swim center, [it is] going to let it get to this point, what [is the City] going to do?”

Rutter has two daughters, ages 10 and 13, who use the ISC. Since one is a diver and the other a swimmer, during the closure he had to drive the girls to different pools on top of juggling getting his third daughter to gymnastics.

The fate of the ISC looms large over Rutter’s life, like an ax waiting to fall. He called the City’s declaration to solve the problem “a lot of empty talk” and “big plans.”

“That is [the City’s] job is to figure out where funds need to be directed and direct those funds. What is the cause for [the City] to be failing in this particular aspect?” he said. “I just wish they would have the respect to tell us what is going to happen.”

Julie Corrigan, manager of the Santa Clara Swim Club, said the club, which has roughly 500 members, has seen membership decline since the ISC’s closure. Having the ISC operational is in the City’s best interest, she said, since having meets there generates an economic boon for local businesses.

She said the swim club is living up to its end of the bargain but the City is faltering on its end.

“Swimming creates discipline in people and it creates a sense of routine,” she said. “We all need that. When you disrupt that, it disrupts everyone’s lives as a family.”

Considering estimates for the cost of a new swim center range from $80 to $100 million, many have wondered why the City cannot simply refurbish the existing building.

Veronica Gonzalez, a volunteer with the Santa Clara Swim Club, said she worries about the fate of the swim center every day. Gonzalez is Columbian and is frequently frustrated with how disposable everything is nowadays.

“We get really used to rebuilding,” she said. “Everything is meant to be wasted.”

Further, she said, remedial swimmers suffer the most since their parents are less likely to commit to a sport their kids are just getting into if inconvenienced by a venue change.

private fundraising effort 10 years ago failed to produce results. Many, including sources for this story, have floated the idea of a public-private partnership.

No Quick Fixes or Easy Answers

But public-private partnerships can get messy, said Cynthia Bojorquez, assistant city manager for the City. If groups such as the Santa Clara Swim Club want to partner with the City, that group needs to contribute equally. Considering what groups like the swim club pay to rent the pool doesn’t cover the cost of maintenance, the City is essentially subsidizing them, she said.

Partnerships need to be equitable, Bojorquez said. That means sharing in revenue and costs. Until a private partner brings to the table what the City is investing, the City is on its own.

Budget constraints, brought on largely from the COVID-19 pandemic, have put an even bigger black eye on the City, making large capital expenditures all but impossible. The City’s priority has been whittling its deficit before it can begin to grapple with the colossus of its unfunded infrastructure needs.

Since money funneling into the City has dwindled, City employees have simply been trying to maintain essential services such as police, fire, sewers and power. While she said she understands the concern of, what she called, “a dedicated vocal constituency, “pitting these services against each other” causes everyone to lose.

Refurbishing the ISC only puts a Band-Aid on the problem, doing nothing to address the underlying cause. Until the cause is contended with, Borjorquez said, the City will always be in “reactive mode,” playing catch-up.

The City cannot go on investing in fixing problems without a tenable solution, she added.

“It is no longer a matter of repair, it is a matter of replace,” she said. “If you are going to spend money, wouldn’t it be better to spend money on something that you know will last? At some point, we have to make a decision that a short-term solution doesn’t have a long-term strategy.”

Further, Borjorquez said, the City needs to concern itself with having a swim center for everyone in Santa Clara, not just groups like the swim club or Aquamaids.

Since ponying up the money for a new swim center would significantly hamper City services, the City has been looking into a ballot measure for the 2024 election. That measure would levy a tax to pay for a new swim center but would require approval of a supermajority of voters to pass.

Public polls conducted by the City show only about 40% of voters support such a measure.

The ballot measure is not the only tactic the City is taking to shore up cash flow. It recently upped its business license tax, shifted its fee schedule to greater cost recovery and is increasing its utility rate. These measures are all designed to give the City more flexibility in how it invests in its infrastructure.

Part of the problem, Borjorquez said, is that the City does not have a dedicated fund for capital expenditures, something it aims to discuss putting in place during a study session early next year.

But the City has been talking, discussing, considering, thinking about, consulting experts and bemoaning the state of the ISC for 15 years. Whether this time it will actually do something remains to be seen.

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10 Comments
  1. Inquiring Minds 6 months ago
    Reply

    How much does the Santa Clara Swim Club/Aquamaids/other groups pay to rent the ISC each month/year?
    How much total revenue does the City of Santa Clara receive from these groups monthly/yearly?
    How much total revenue has the City of Santa Clara received from these groups in the last 10 years? 20 years? 30 years?
    What has the City of Santa Clara done with these rental fees?
    How much access is given to the general public to the ISC (not through the Santa Clara Swim Club)?

    The SCSC is a nonprofit/club that regularly turns a profit. What deal are they getting from the City?

    • Tax Filing 6 months ago
      Reply

      The SCSC claimed a $460,000 government grant in 2021 and a $475,000 government grant in 2020 on their tax filings.

  2. Rick Rutter 6 months ago
    Reply

    I appreciate David’s ability to write an attention-grabbing headline, but I’d like to personally go on the record as saying “demand” is a very strong word to use in this situation. In addition, although he captured my frustrations accurately, he didn’t mention the main source of my frustration, which is a maze of red tape that makes it challenging for the aquatic community and the city to collaborate in solving the problem. I’m not a city planner or a politician, and as I learn more about the challenges cities face in working with outside groups that’s where my frustrations grow. But if we’re going to be “The Center of What’s Possible” we need to be open to collaborations and creative solutions to tackle big problems like this. Other cities are finding solutions to bring outside groups in to help fund facilities and develop revenue models that support community-based aquatic programs without burdening taxpayers. These partnerships also bring significant revenue to the community as a whole. As a swim parent, I’m extremely grateful for any pool facilities available to us and appreciate what the City of Santa Clara provides, but I think we could do better through collaboration.

  3. gadfly 6 months ago
    Reply

    Interesting that this article accompanies the article about Santa Clara’s structural deficit. Some key points from that article:

    – “Labor costs are the largest share of general fund expenditures and overall these are projected to increase 43% over ten years. Retirement contributions are expected to grow 50% between now and 2034. This includes pension contributions for current employees as well as paying down the gap between what the City has paid into the state pension fund (CalPERS) and anticipated future payments to retirees (unfunded liability).”

    – “Neighboring cities don’t face Santa Clara’s budget problems. Sunnyvale put $24 million into its reserves last year. Sunnyvale also forecasts revenue shortfalls over the next 10 years, but because Sunnyvale has $107 million in budget stabilization reserves, it will not face budget and service cuts. Mountain View had a $6.8 million surplus last year and forecasts surpluses over the next 10 years.”

    So before city leaders start asking for more money to fund new projects, much less dig ourselves out of this hole, we need to hold them accountable for the money they have already committed elsewhere, and if those investments are justified.

    • Carol 6 months ago
      Reply

      My main source of frustration is the barriers to entry to basic aquatics services to all Santa Clara residents. One doesn’t need to train six days a week in competitive swimming, diving, or synchronized swimming to need at least seasonal access to an affordable place to learn aquatic safety and to recreate and exercise in a pool on a warm day.

      There is no way that the competitive clubs operating at the ISC can cover operating costs. That’s not how any city amenity like a public pool is meant to work. Do Santa Clara’s largely safe, lovely parks with well-maintained restrooms cover their own costs? Do it’s libraries turn a profit on late fees? Does the senior center seek out funding from corporate partners to operate it’s pool? Are the fees for enrichment classes available through the city-run parks and rec enough to cover the labor and facilities costs the classes generate? The answer to all these questions is a clear, “No”.

      As a lifelong resident and parent of three kids who do not compete in aquatics, yet still need access to an aquatic facility, it is heartbreaking and frustrating to visit nearby cities like Morgan Hill and Gilroy that have functional public aquatics facilities for their residents to enjoy. These centers in nearby cities who likely don’t have the corporate tax revenues Santa Clara has are packed with residents of all age levels, abilities, and income levels. It really makes a person wonder what the motives are in the city government buildings.

  4. Carol (2 of 2) 6 months ago
    Reply

    How many swimmers to Santa Clara’s International Swim Center come from outside our city to train here? If they are travelling here in significant numbers from adjacent cities is it asking too much for their cities to help contribute to this cause? Yah, I’d be all for other cities picking up the tab for a swim center in THEIR city!

  5. ISC fan 6 months ago
    Reply

    The intangibles this center brings the community are priceless.

    The City needs to think about the aquatics center in terms of community richness, not just dollar signs. As Carol points out, the center is a place for people to learn life saving skills, get exercise, and make friendships. And this facility, when functional, is highly utilized by the public.

    The ISC has programs for all and is a community builder, for Santa Clara and the immediate surrounding communities. Not only is the ISC home to SCSC, Aquamaids, the diving team, and polo teams, but it also is a place for the general public of all ages to swim. The swim school provides lessons to all ages. The club allows for year-round age group swimming, and the Master’s program for those 18+ that want a place to train. They also offer senior swim times for our older population to be comfortable swimming at their own pace. The ISC is also home to the most popular Special Olympics team in the county.

    Yes, the ISC does bring some non-residents to it. So what, after all they do pay to use the facility! Some of those people choose to use the ISC as opposed to the swim center located within their city limits because SCUSD’s boundaries are not exclusive to Santa Clara. SCUSD families living outside of Santa Clara want their children to be with their friends when participating in the swim lessons or one of the teams that practices there. Some are coming because of the fact that the club offers world-class training. Additionally, some of the programs offered, such as summer open swim, there is a higher admission fee for non-residents. These non-residents are also spending money at the surrounding businesses, providing additional sales-tax to the city.

  6. PARTNERSHIP IS KEY 6 months ago
    Reply

    When you have for example a few competitive teams groups and non profits utilizing the space you really need to stop and make sure the rental rates are indicative of the cost to operate. These are not small time outfits and a simple search will show you these groups bring in millions of dollars in fundraising so for the city to continue to not charge them accordingly is disastrous. You are seeing the outcome of a 1 sided parent worship whereas the city has shouldered the expense and as much as large scale events do bring economic boom it isn’t being allocated back into maintenance. So either the subsidized groups need to come to the table and agree to truly partner or they will continue to see an aging venue go into disrepair. This ain’t rocket science but SC has seen many healthy programs depart under this same exact scenario.

  7. A Curious Resident 6 months ago
    Reply

    I have two observations on the entire ISC (International Swim Center) situation:

    1. I question how important the ISC is to the City. Few people will deny that it is a nice, historic feature to the City but how many people would miss it if it permanently closed. I strongly suspect that the vast majority of the public would not miss it. Obviously, the swimming athletes would but they are very much not in the majority.
    2. To the best of my knowledge all City buildings except Parks Buildings are maintained by Building Maintenance under Public Works. These seem to be well maintained with proactive maintenance and appropriate replacement. See Fire Stations, City Hall and the Police Station as examples. The Parks Department has historically done a less than ideal job with buildings under their care. Maybe it would be a good idea to get true professionals to build and maintain Parks buildings so we don’t end up with months long closures of City facilities.

  8. A Curious Non-resident 2 months ago
    Reply

    I’m not a Santa Claran, much less a California, but I am an avid supporter of Aquatics. I and my children have made the trip to the George Haines International Swim Center countless times in the last 30 years and it is a treasure. We pay dearly to access that treasure. Beyond the cost of goods and lodging, we pay gas taxes, tolls, sales taxes, parking fees, rental car taxes, lodging taxes, airline flight taxes, airport taxes, entertainment taxes, restaurant taxes. This is all in addition to the cost of the goods and services we purchase. For a “Curious Resident” to not understand the sheer amount of money that I and others with similar interests have shunted into the City of Santa Clara, the county and this state is ignorance, at best.

    What’s more, let’s provide the same lense to all government services: is the police officer writing enough tickets to cover his salary? The librarian checking out enough books? The lifeguard making enough saves? Perhaps, that’s the key. If competence in the water isn’t common, the lifeguards can actually earn their paycheck.
    Good Lord.

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