- Associated Press - Monday, May 30, 2011

ANDERSON, S.C. — On those summer days when the temperature soars into the 90s and the haze blurs the horizon, city pools across the U.S. have beckoned people from all over to take a cool dip.

But as the Great Recession has drained city budgets across the country, it also has drained public pools for good. From New York City to Sacramento, Calif., pools now considered costly extravagances are being shuttered, taking away a rite of summer for millions. It’s especially hard for families that can’t afford a membership to a private pool or fitness club and don’t live in a neighborhood where they can befriend someone with a backyard pool.

In the past two years, Anderson has closed two pools to the public, one shuttered for good and one hanging on by a thread, run by a swim club only for swim team practices and lessons. In all, four public pools within 20 miles of the city have closed since the economy went sour.

“You think about American culture — swimming and summer just go together,” said Tommy Starkweather, the swim team coach at the Sheppard Swim Center, which was closed to the public in January. “A lot of these kids not having the opportunity to swim — it’s just hard to swallow. Not only is it important for safety, but what you should do as a kid is swim and have fun and be active.”

But running a pool is an expensive proposition. The Anderson Swim Club spends $10,000 a month on insurance, operations and maintenance, even for the pool’s current limited use. In Grand Traverse County, Mich., the only public pool for the county’s 87,000 residents lost $244,000 last year.

“That’s three sheriff’s deputies on the road,” County Commissioner Christine Maxbauer said.

Grand Traverse County is also facing a looming deficit of more than $1 million, and commissioners are debating whether it is fair to keep the pool open when other services get cut.

“We have to focus on vital services. … Clearly a swimming pool is not a vital service,” said Mrs. Maxbauer, whose husband is a competitive swimmer.

In Sacramento, the city’s more than 465,000 residents had 13 pools to choose from a decade ago. By the start of the summer of 2012, only three public pools will be open.

The city has tried for years to keep from closing any pools completely by shortening hours and closing them only on certain days. But the lingering economic downturn has cut $1 million from Sacramento’s aquatics budget, leaving officials with just $700,000 for pools, said Dave Mitchell, operations manager for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

The pool closings and shuttering of other recreation opportunities leave children with far fewer good choices to occupy their free time during the long summer months, Mr. Mitchell said.

Pools “are just a safe place to be and be kids, to enjoy summer, to enjoy some times. These opportunities just aren’t going to be there for the youth, and it is crushing,” he said.

In Oak Park, one of Sacramento’s poorest neighborhoods, the local pool is scheduled to close next year along with a neighborhood community center. The Rev. Tony Sadler of the neighborhood’s Shiloh Baptist Church said both facilities are a resource for families “just to survive in these economic times.”

“In an area such as Oak Park, closing these places would be the equivalent of putting them back in a drug-infested war zone that has trapped our children generation after generation,” the Rev. Sadler recently told the city council.

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