NCCC pool should be kept open

The North Country Community College pool is seen in April 2018. (Enterprise photo — Glynis Hart)

It was good that North Country Community College conducted a survey about public use of its pool, but it didn’t ask the big question: Do you want the pool to continue to exist?

The college did, however, allow additional comments at the end of the survey, and dozens of people posted comments urging the college to keep the pool open, according to NCCC Communications Director Chris Knight. He said he could count on one hand the number of people who said closing the pool would be best. He said college leaders can see that local residents overwhelmingly want to the pool to remain.

There is plenty more evidence for that beyond the survey. A local group has been formed to advocate for keeping the pool, many people have spoken in public meetings and written to the Enterprise opinion page in that vein, and many more have posted comments on Facebook supporting the pool.

But the college doesn’t need it for its own purposes, and isn’t looking forward to some imminent repair costs as well as its ongoing expenses. Just to keep it going beyond this year would take about $180,000 worth of repairs, and even then there is a shortage of locker rooms. The public can’t use the locker rooms, and thus the pool, when college sports teams are using them.

Students rarely use the pool, college leaders say, and a difficulty in finding student lifeguards means they can’t open the pool in the evenings, which is when most local people would be free to use it. Therefore, public swimming here has lagged in recent years — although Knight said it seems to have picked up in response to the college saying this fall that it might close the pool.

In the new master plan for an overhaul of the main campus in Saranac Lake — which is basically the same as it was in the early 1970s — the college’s consulting firm posed two options for the Sparks Athletic Complex: Get rid of the pool and build more locker rooms in that space, or keep the pool and build new locker rooms out one side of the building — which would cost $4 million more.

The people whose taxes fund much of this college have made it pretty clear that they want the pool — and college officials must listen, because the word “community” in NCCC’s name isn’t just there for show. But college officials are right when they say their main job is to educate students, and that running a public pool doesn’t really fit into that mission. They would like to keep it going, but they have a lot of needs and their funding has always been tight.

The good news, for both sides, is that we have somebody to take over running the pool, a group that would almost certainly do a better job of managing and marketing it than the college does — the YMCA. Last year, even before the college announced it may close the pool, the Y’s announcement that it will expand its services to Saranac Lake was greeted with massive public support. The Y, however, will only use existing facilities; it won’t build a new pool if the college closes this one.

It sure would be nice to build a new pool somewhere else and let the Y run it, but is that realistic? It seems unlikely and expensive — but possible, if someone takes the lead.

Until then, it’s really up to the college. Will it put in some more time and money to remain in good standing with the community? Or will it quickly rid itself of something the community loves? A consequence of the latter could be a long-term bitterness in the hearts of local people, which might hurt the college in the future.

From talking with college officials, we don’t think they want that — and we don’t, either. We are optimistic that some kind of partnership can be reached in which the college can the keep the pool going and then hand it off to the YMCA in a way that isn’t financially crushing. Yes, it will take money, but more importantly it will take cooperation and citizen engagement. We believe this is a town with a lot of that.