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I attended the Parry Sound Strategic Plan focus group sessions this past Tuesday. There were about 45 participants, not including Staff and Council who were there to participate and/or facilitate the process. It lasted about three hours and included a discussion on six separate topics that were identified of particular interest from the earlier open house.

I thought the sessions were well-managed. The participants, even when they disagreed, were thoughtful and considerate of other opinions. All in all it was well done and should help with the strategic planning process. A draft plan is expected by the end of the summer, with the final Strategic Plan approved by yearend.

It was interesting to see that one of the six topics for discussion concerned a swimming pool complex. There is a surge of interest in the community, mostly from outside Parry Sound as I can tell, to build a swimming pool complex.

Personally I am neutral to negative on this initiative. In theory a pool would be quite nice. But like a puppy, pools come with long-term responsibilities and costs. A pool would probably cost on the order of $750,000 per year to operate, not including the initial capital costs, or annual inflation.

The question is who will pay for this. Participants who reside in the neighbouring communities were not unanimous in suggesting their municipality would support a pool with tax revenues. Information at the meeting suggested that perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 people would take memberships, and cover about three-quarters of the operating costs. That’s about 10% to 20% of the target audience. Assuming a middle figure, 1,500 members, the annual cost for a per-person membership would be about $300, perhaps $1,000 for a family with kids. These are my estimated costs, and were not provided at the session on Tuesday.

Hmm, how many people have that type of money to spend on a pool membership? In practice swimming in Parry Sound from June through September is free. I guess the higher paid hospital staff can afford a pool membership. It’s possible that the hospital might even subsidize memberships as a ‘health’ initiative. It’s not so obvious how others might afford the cost. There certainly will be some that can and will, but 1,500? The outlying communities can’t necessarily be expected to support a pool because of travel challenges in the winter. Some will find travel not to be an issue, but some seniors will find it to be an unreasonable burden driving into Parry Sound unless it’s connected with shopping or a doctor’s visit. And will these seniors expect a discounted rate? They seem to get it for all sorts of services. (Disclosure: I’m a pre-senior, and will be eligible for any senior benefits if a pool were to be built.)

The real issue concerns who will pay for the very real shortfall in revenue to operate the pool complex. The neighbouring municipalities are quite happy to have their residents enjoy facilities offered by Parry Sound, but are they willing to step up and pay their share, especially if membership revenue falls well short of forecast? And what about ten and twenty years from now when any facility will require capital repairs and upgrades? Might they step away from the arrangement and build a smaller complex in their own municipality, at lower cost?

Experience to date does not support the idea that Parry Sound’s municipal partners will be there to share the load. They will argue any assessment be based on non-seasonal residents so as to cut their obligations. And taking the West Parry Sound District Museum as an example, which was formed by agreement of the seven local communities, only five now still provide support. And the total funding is two-thirds of what it was ten years ago. How many people buy a puppy for their kids and a year or two later decide it’s too much trouble and too expensive so they take it out to the country and let it loose, or drop it off at the local animal shelter? Well Parry Sound would probably end up playing the animal shelter role.

It’s human nature to sign up for things and then change your mind. Think about fitness club memberships. That pool membership may not seem to be something you really need or want after a couple of years of not using it as much as you thought. Sort of like sports season tickets to any team not called the Maple Leafs. How are the Argonauts season tickets doing?

Then there is the question of the full population supporting the interests of a few. Remember that 10% to 20% figure for people who would join the pool. That means the rest of us would be responsible for providing them with a benefit we have no interest in. We Parry Sounders already subsidize the Stockey Centre and Bobby Orr Community Centre to the tune of $500,000 per year. Do I play hockey? No. Do I care for live music? No. But I’m still obligated to subsidize those who do through my property taxes. Do our municipal neighbours help pay for this? No, and that’s okay. They didn’t sign up for it, we did.

Back to dogs. Twice bitten, third time shy.

Despite the tone of this post I’m not against a pool. I just don’t want to pay for one. I would be delighted to have Seguin, McDougall or Carling take the lead and build a pool in their municipality. They have lots of land for this type of complex. Wait, they don’t have water or sewer services. So it’s back to Parry Sound to hold the bag on this one.

I would like to have the regional municipalities build and subsidize a ski hill so I wouldn’t have to drive to Collingwood. Like a pool it would support physical activity and improve the health of the community, or at least my health. It would probably also act as a lure for physicians who won’t come because we don’t have a ski hill close by. The logic for more and more is endless, and in its own way persuasive.

Lots of arguments, but who will pay, and how much? Are we really expected to subsidize the interests and hobbies of the few? We can’t afford to provide subsidized transportation for people to get to medical appointments, but people want us to afford a swimming pool? Let’s see how this plays out.

Incoming – Duck! (Parry Sound in Black & White)

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