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.
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.
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.”
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.
A 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.