November 12, 2008
No pool for Racine kids. Now no fountain, either?
Oh, the irony!
For 20 years, the block sat empty, a parking lot for postal vehicles, an eyesore at the heart of Racine. The city finally got its act together in the new millennium: the Johnson Building was built on much of the lot opposite Monument Square, Sam Johnson Parkway was created, providing a view to the lake, a place to sit, anchored by a lovely fountain at its base, built in 2001 as part of the larger Main Street rehabilitation. The whole parkway project cost $2.3 million; the fountain itself $700,000.
On hot summer days, the fountain -- once officially named "Splash Square" but never called that by anyone -- rings with the laughter of children.
What could be nicer?
Ah, but in one of those ironies of government, exacerbated by shrinking budgets, the city is now contemplating spending $30,000 to build a fence to keep the kids out.
Surely, there's a better answer! But it will be costly.
The fountain today is more than just a well-used amenity for little kids in bathing suits, dashing through the spray. Out of tragedy, came significance: the fountain was overlaid with mementos of Racine native Laurel Clark, one of seven astronauts killed when the space shuttle Columbia exploded upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003.
Thanks to about $150,000 in public donations, and $50,000 in city money, the fountain became a memorial -- but one which still rings with the laughter of children enjoying the water spray while their mothers sit nearby.
What could be better? Not much. A Journal Times article last year, "Hot Tips to Stay Cool," listed this as No. 10: "The Dr. Laurel Blair Salton Clark Memorial Fountain, Sam Johnson Parkway in Downtown Racine: It's a great place to splash around, especially for kids."
In fact, when the memorial part of the fountain was finally being completed in September 2007, Brian O'Connell, city development director, explained why no work was done during the summer: “We didn’t want to have the fountain out of commission in the summer,” he said. “We wanted it available for kids to play."
Well, that was then. This is now.
City Parks and Recreation Director Donnie Snow sent a memo to the City Council this week pointing out the high cost of operating the fountain -- especially as an amenity for kids rather than just something to look at. Turns out, when the fountain was first constructed, nobody expected that kids would be attracted "in great numbers... to play in the jetted waters of the fountain... therefore causing the fountain to be used as a 'Splash Pad' rather than a fountain to just sit and view aesthetically."
Because kids starting to use the fountain, state codes had to be met: the water had to be treated with chemicals just as a swimming pool. And those chemicals -- primarily chlorine -- "compromised" the pumps and motors and copper pipes not designed for them. Repairs and maintenance last year cost $82,000, Snow said, up from $50,000 the year before.
Snow says the city could remove the chlorine system it installed in 2004 and upgrade the fountain to accommodate fresh water -- for $175,000. Oh, and then the water bill would be $130,000 a year.
Regardless, if kids are permitted in the fountain, he says, city and state health codes require an attendant -- at a cost of $31,000 a year.
Snow -- who shouldn't be considered the bad guy in all this -- acknowledges that if the city had built the fountain with kids in mind, "some of these costs could have been averted." But now he says, "when you weigh the alternatives, I think it would be even more heartbreaking if we didn't treat the water properly and regulate the chemicals. It cuts both ways. It would be nice to have a water attraction kids can go into."
The fence, he said, "was a proposal we made to the mayor in terms of cost. If you asked us, when faced with other costs, with eliminating positions, where do we look to cut costs? This is something people can enjoy aesthetically; it doesn't have to be something kids can play in.
"If it came down to kids using the fountain vs. cutting a position, my recommendation would be to make this an aesthetic fountain for viewing and not one for kids to play in."
Still, memory sends me back to the archives. Why, here's a quote from Mayor Gary Becker -- as recently as this past June! -- lamenting the fact that Racine doesn't have a municipal swimming pool. Hasn't had one since the 1960s, in fact: "Find me another community our size without municipal swimming pools," Becker said. "It’s a great place for kids to go in summer. They become great community meeting places." Snow, too, recalls learning to swim in the Washington Park Pool, closed in 1968 when the city chose not to spend $200,000 on repairs.
OK, the Laurel Salton Clark Memorial Plaza isn't a municipal swimming pool, far from it. But it's the closest thing we've got. Doesn't say much that it kinda, sorta developed on its own. Would say even less if the city now fences it off -- without offering the kids any alternative. Just my .02 cents.