Why are more than a third of public pools in Kansas City still closed? | KCUR 89.3

As the Fourth of July holiday weekend approaches, those looking to spend time by Kansas City’s public pools are finding they have fewer options this year.

Issues ranging from maintenance to supply chain issues to a shortage of lifeguards have meant some area pools will not be open this summer.

In 2022, Kansas City Parks and Recreation permanently closed three swimming pools and temporarily closed Swope Park Pool, which had been in operation for 80 years.

Kansas City isn’t alone in struggling to keep pools open this year.

In Overland Park, Kansas, two of its six pools are closed for the 2022 season. Further afield, Denver closed six of its 30 pools due to staffing shortages, and in St. Louis, two of its seven pools will not open this year.

In other municipalities, swimming pool management has changed its lifeguard recruitment strategies to address the continued nationwide shortage of lifeguards. By doing so, the town of Olathe was able to keep its five swimming pools fully equipped for the summer.

Here’s a look at some of the reasons behind swimming pool closures and ideas on how to address issues in the future.

Repairs, security and deterioration

Kansas City permanently closed three of its 11 pools this year: Arbor Villa Park Pool, Ashland Square Pool and Jarboe Pool. All three are “drained and refilled” pools, which means that instead of filtering the water, they are completely drained and refilled every day. They don’t have a filtration system, and all cleaning is done by draining or adding chemicals.

The city contracts with Midwest Pool Management to operate its public pools. Chad Beasley, the Kansas City manager at Midwest Pools, said drain-and-fill pools are no longer considered sanitary, which is why they were closed this year.

The Gillham Park Pool, another drain and fill pool that closed in 2016, has been replaced with spray ground, and Beasley said the same is likely to happen at one of the three closed pools.

He didn’t know if Kansas City intended to open other pools to replace those that were permanently closed.

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Kansas City Lighthouse

Patrons enjoy the water at Grove Park Pool in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Beacon contacted the Kansas City Department of Parks and Recreation for comment, but because the water sports manager was out of the office, they referred Beasley for an interview.

Beasley said the Swope Park pool, which was built in the 1940s, is closed due to maintenance issues which he attributes to the age of the pool. He hopes it can reopen next year, but said he had no information on how long repairs will take or whether the Kansas City government will pursue them.

When the city opened its pools in June, three others were also closed due to needed maintenance, but they have since reopened. Beasley said this was partly due to supply chain issues disrupting repair schedules.

Midwest Pools did not detect some of the maintenance issues until they filled the pools for the first time, and at that time replacement parts could not be delivered in time for the opening June 11.

The dramatic decline of lifeguards

One of the biggest reasons public pools are struggling to stay open is a nationwide shortage of lifeguards, said Shelby Duncan, aquatics program manager for Olathe Pools.

Since 2016, the total number of recreational protection service workers, which includes lifeguards and ski patrollers, has declined by 18% in the United States. In Kansas and Missouri, it fell 41%.

In the Kansas City area, the industry has lost almost half of its lifeguards in just a few years. In 2018, there were 1,440 lifeguards and ski patrollers in the metropolitan area. By 2021, that number had dropped to 770.

Part of the reason is the pandemic, Duncan said. In Overland Park, the initial lockdown closed all public pools in the summer of 2020. Prairie Village, Kansas, and Independence, Missouri, made the same decision.

In general, swimming pools rely heavily on staff feedback and referrals for their lifeguard teams. Once a pool loses staff, Duncan said, it’s difficult to recover and replenish its pool of lifeguards.

“Those facilities that were unable to open or chose not to open in 2020 had no returns for 2021 and still do not now,” Duncan said. “Having these kids coming back really helps. Not only do I not need to hire as many, but they are our number one recruiter for new staff.

In addition to that loss, Duncan said, students can also choose to take a retail or restaurant job that can pay a similar salary and has no upfront training cost.

In Kansas City, a lifeguard certification program can cost around $250 and take three days. And given the surplus of jobs available in retail since 2020, switching to retail or food service is a much easier decision to make.

Duncan said students have also increasingly chosen to work as summer interns rather than lifeguards.

“We used to have kids all through college, but now they have to do internships,” she said. “Everything is so much more demanding for them, and they don’t necessarily have the time to commit to summer jobs.”

How Olathe changed its lifesaving program

Lifeguard recruitment issues have affected all municipalities in the area, but some have been more successful than others in keeping their doors open.

At Olathe, pool management made a few key pivots that Duncan says helped them ease the effects of the national shortage.

For one thing, Olathe waived lifeguard certification fees for applicants. Previously, they reimbursed this fee to employees once hired, but since many candidates don’t have the money to pay for training up front, removing this fee allowed them to consider more candidates.

Olathe Pools has also launched a paid internship program for its lifeguards to make work more attractive to students worried about having gaps in their resumes. This year, five lifeguards work within the framework of this program, in departments such as finance or IT. Duncan has worked with local universities to ensure the internship also meets academic credit requirements.

Most of the time, these interns will work on internship-specific tasks in the morning before the pool opens, or one or two days during the week.

“It helps me because we really benefit from the fact that kids can come back year after year, with that maturity and that experience to help guide our new staff,” Duncan said.

This story originally appeared on the Kansas City Beacon, another member of the KC Media Collective.

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