For several years, the outdoor swimming pool at the Oakbrook branch of the Summerville YMCA has remained open during the winter months, when the temperature occasionally — and we mean occasionally — dips below freezing. Because the pool is located outside — and not inside a brick-walled natatorium — the water has to be heated and the entire pool has to be covered in a gigantic bubble. But not this year. This winter, the pool will be closed.
According to Gary Lukridge, CEO of the Summerville YMCA, the bubble is torn. "Bubbles are just not something you go to Walmart and get," Lukridge says. The bubble is inflated with hot air and a dehumidifier. "It's something that you have to pre-order. And they come out and make measurements. Each specific bubble is geared to that pool. You're talking about $60,000 to $70,000 just to buy."
Of course, the cost of purchasing a new bubble isn't the only expense the YMCA would have to shoulder to keep the pool open during the semi-harsh reign of Jack Frost. Lukridge says the cost of heating the pool, staffing lifeguards, and paying for electricity have to be factored in as well. He says it could cost $150,000 to buy a new bubble and keep the pool open in the winter.
The pool will likely remain open until November and will reopen in the spring, Lukridge says. "When times were good and we had a lot of people using it and different teams, we could do it, but, again, times aren't as good as they once were," he says.
Following the announcement that the YMCA will close the swimming pool at Oakbrook over the winter, a group of aquatic exercise fans called Keep the Oakbrook Pool Open have joined together to do exactly what their name says. They recently unveiled a website and are encouraging supporters to sign a petition to keep the open.
"The YMCA, it's entire mission is to help better the community," says Francisco de Aragon, a member of Keep the Oakbrook Pool Open. "That particular facility, yes, it is a drain, just like any other facilities are a drain on their resources, but that facility is offered to the community at large as a service."
De Aragon says that even if it's just one kid receiving swimming lessons — likely making him one less drowning statistic — then the facility has served the greater good.
An assistant coach with a team that rents lane space at Oakbrook and a lifeguard at the YMCA, de Aragon acknowledges that the bubble is torn, but he believes it can be fixed. He notes that there are tears in the bubble, "but they're not to the point to where it's not repairable. They've put patches on it before."
De Aragon thinks there are ways to raise the money to keep the pool open. He believes they can seek out grants, host swim meets and other athletic events, and establish partnerships with organizations and nonprofits.
Lukridge says the board asked questions about their ultimate goal — building a natatorium. "If we keep putting money down this tube, is that really worth it?" he asks. "What about if we don't put it up, try to save some money, and maybe in a few years, we can build that new facility that we want to for the aquatic center.?"
He adds, "Then we can really start trying to get the programs up where we want them to go instead of trying to get an outdoor facility and bring it into an indoor facility." The board hopes to build a new facility in a few years.
However, de Aragon fears that if Summerville closes the pool in the winter, YMCA members will seek out other pools and will not return to Oakbrook once a natatorium is built.
On Sept. 7, the board will meet with those who want to keep the pool open. De Aragon hopes it will delay closing the pool for a year to allow supporters to raise the money to keep it open. "If it can break even, if it is revenue neutral, it's not taking away any money from the Y, and it's not causing a drain, or it's in the black and providing revenue for the YMCA, then keep it open," de Aragon says. "If it's not, on the day that the 12 months is over, by all means shut it down because we failed."