By Jessie Wagoner
The McPherson City Commission has said they will not make a decision regarding opening the McPherson Water Park until June 1, with the earliest possible opening date being June 15. As the community waits for a final decision to be made, a large group of community members is advocating for the pool to open; they are ready to swim.
There is a petition circulating online, created by Matthew Powers, Brycen Labertew and EJ Hein, all former lifeguards at the water park, requesting the water park open. The petition, which outlines the benefits of opening the pool and addresses safety concerns, has garnered almost 500 signatures and comments, so far. The trio, joined by another lifeguard and swimmer, Alex Houston, plan to present the petition to city commissioners before the June 1 meeting.
“Safety is our biggest concern,” Hein said. “When we are allowed to open, which would be at the beginning of Phase Three, the guidelines that Governor Kelly has laid out, we should be able to meet. Making it safe for everyone there. I feel like compared to other public places, the pool is going to be relatively more safe just because of the chlorine, it is outside and usually there is a lot of distance between groups.”
“I don’t think there is as much risk at the pool as there is at grocery stores or restaurants,” Houston said.
Another concern commissioners have expressed is the financial cost to open the water park. The water park is allocated $180,000 a year to operate. A portion of that money has already been spent on maintenance and repairs. Opening the pool for a shortened season could be a hefty expense for the city when revenues are down. Proponents of opening the pool view the costs differently.
“On the surface, no, the pool doesn’t make money,” Labertew said. “But, if our pool doesn’t open, we are going to be sending people to Hutch and Wichita to swim. Also, it’s going to a be a great stress reliever at a time like this. It’s beneficial to both kids and adults.”
“The water park is what some kids do every single day,” Powers said. “Opening up would give them a safer place to go. At least we would know where they are and that they are supervised.”
Safety plans in place
Kyle Roberts, aquatics director, presented a plan to the McPherson City Commission outlining current research and safety plans, which could be implemented at the park this summer to increase safety.
“The safety concerns, we can easily meet those,” Roberts said. “I’ve been having discussions with aquatics professionals in the state and the CDC and they did put out a formula for deck space, so if you have an emergency or a break, you have to be able to accommodate everybody on the deck, not just the pool. The pool is pretty much safe, based on previous studies the CDC says that two parts per million can kill it in about 45 seconds. We keep our pools about three parts per million. So, the pool isn’t the main concern, it is the deck space.”
Based on the deck space recommendations put forth by the CDC, Roberts says the water park can safely maintain 216 individuals. He would like to see a middle of June opening date. This would allow him plenty of time to hire, train and educate staff on the changes, as a result of COVID-19.
In regards to the financial aspects of the water park, Roberts agreed the water park itself does not make money, but still provides a financial benefit to the community as a whole. People who visit the water park spend money at local businesses, eating at local restaurants.
“I would like you to view this as providing the community with a mental health opportunity,” Roberts said. “For people to get outside and do something and not be stuck inside. They would have some kind of summer normality.”
Aqua Pups ready to practice
Kyle Banman, coach of the McPherson Aqua Pups swim team, says his ability to plan for the upcoming swim season is limited until a final decision is made by commissioners.
“If there is not a facility to work in, our hands are tied,” Banman said. “Some things I’ve been kicking around are possibly using the pool at the Y, if it opens or some virtual dry land training.”
While waiting on guidance from city commissioners, Banman is also seeking direction from Missouri Valley Swimming and USA Swimming. They will provide the final say as to if swim meets will be sanctioned this season. The Aqua Pups hosted their first weekend invitational meet last summer and were looking forward to hosting it again this year. Currently, plans are on hold until an official decision is made.
Banman says swim teams throughout the state are handling the situation differently. Manhattan and several teams in western Kansas have closed completely for the summer so there will be no practice or meets there. Meanwhile, Derby and Hutch are planning to open, so practices will continue. The state has given no clear direction on opening swimming pools, leaving it up to local authorities.
Banman says it is typical for the Aqua Pups to have about a dozen high school swimmers on the team, each year. Summer season gives the athletes an opportunity to stay in shape.
“We love having the high school kids on board,” Banman said. “We encourage them to come out, stay in shape and work with us.”
Planning for a season without knowing for sure if it will happen is a challenge, but one Banman and the Aqua Pups are facing head on.
“It all goes back to safety,” Banman said. “We are looking into ways to keep our families and swimmers thinking about our Aqua Pups, being engaged no matter what. We are missing our team dearly and hope we can get back at it soon. We want to be safe and smart about it. We are going to come back out of this and be stronger.”
COVID-19 is only one risk
While the safety concern getting the most attention right now is COVID-19, it may not be the biggest safest risk to local children. The increased risk of drowning is one safety concern Roberts and the lifeguards say cannot be overlooked. When the weather heats up, children seek relief in the water. Without the pool open, children are more likely to head for nearby lakes and ponds to swim, locations without lifeguards.
“There have already been cases nationwide because of people looking at other avenues,” Roberts said. “They aren’t going to pools that are guarded, but going to lakes and rivers that are unsupervised. So, they are having more drowning cases nationally based on the conversations I’ve been having with Redwood Institute, which is a national insurance company that does statistics for aquatics.”
In addition to providing lifeguards, the water park offers swim lessons to ensure local children are learning to swim safely.
“Swimming lessons are a very fundamental part of childhood,” Powers said. “Without them, we could have kids going to the lake for the first time and not knowing what to do. The water park offers swimming lessons for all ages, so we can reduce drownings.”
The McPherson City Commission has said it will not make a final decision regarding the water park until June 1. The public can express their opinions and provide public comments by contacting the city commissioners or administrator via the city website, www.mcpcity.com.