We were a gang of 11 on a recent Saturday morning, setting out in the pre-dawn darkness on a mini-bus bound for Montreal. Among us were three city recreation officials, a city councillor, a consultant and representatives of local swimming, diving, synchronized swimming and aquafit interests. Longtime aquatics enthusiasts Alex Palilionis and I, acting on behalf of the Kingston Association for Aquatics, Recreation and Sport (KAARS), were tour organizers and guides.
Our mission, in the wake of city council's decision to proceed with feasibility plans for a new aquatics complex with a 50-metre pool, was to educate ourselves by visiting three such facilities in the Montreal area: in Pointe-Claire, LaSalle and Terrebonne. What an inspiring trip!
The first thing our genial host at Pointe-Claire, senior culture and recreation manager Gary Malcolm, did upon greeting us was to gesture to the "wall of fame." On it were mounted 25 bronze plaques with the names of the 25 athletes from the city's program who have represented Canada at the Olympic Games. Pointe-Claire has a population of 28,000.
The Pointe-Claire complex, composed of the original 50-metre pool built in the 1960s, a warmer 25-yard pool and a small wade-in pool for toddlers, was teeming with kids of all ages. That's to be expected on the weekend, one would suppose. But Malcolm told us the place is equally busy during the week with "the Arthritics," day-care kids (1,000 a week), those participating in "adaptive aquatics" for the mentally and physically disabled, gym and swim classes, adult swimming lessons, "aqua natal" courses for expectant mothers, the 3F club (fun and fitness after 50), weight training, competitive swim and diving club practices after school, "aqua percept" (non-competitive gym and swim), recreational swims, adult diving classes and much more.
Even though Pointe-Claire is surrounded by nearby communities with more modern and arguably better physical facilities, it is Pointe-Claire that is the champion by far in attracting users from within and outside its boundaries.
To what does this modestly sized town owe its outsized aquatic success? According to Malcolm, the secret is that from the very beginning, the community got behind aquatics. Originally, seven neighbourhoods raised the capital to build seven neighbourhood outdoor pools. They formed advisory groups for each pool and placed great emphasis on participation and programming.
Those outdoor pools are still running today and act as a feeder system to the indoor facilities, supplying users as well as kids who graduate to becoming lifeguards and instructors. The indoor aquatics centre also has a volunteer, non-supervisory board that has perpetuated the founding values of participation and outstanding programming.
Because of the success of its programs and resultant capacity constraints, Pointe-Claire is now embarking on plans for its second 50-metre pool. When the proposal was registered for public comment, not one objection was recorded. The city council voted unanimously in favour.
The next stop was another suburban centre, the LaSalle Aquadome. Here we were graciously greeted and given a tour by aquatics manager Raymond Kubiak. I had swum at this facility during my Montreal days and was eager to show off the leisure pool and its horticultural adornments to my companions. Our host, of course, saved that for last as we toured team meeting rooms, equipment lockers, changing rooms and even the bowels of the complex, "below decks."
Eventually, we surfaced to gaze upon a beautifully tiled 50-metre basin, one not as intensely populated as its Pointe-Claire counterpart but impressive in every other way. And then came the piŠce de resistance, just as I had remembered it: a warm-water "leisure pool," effectively an indoor aqua park, with fountains, hydrojets, a corkscrew waterslide, a gentle slope for wading in and out, big windows, deck chairs, a patio and real palm trees.
If you know anything about human nature, you will not be surprised to learn that the place was packed with happy kids, teens and parents. We even ran into a grandmother who had journeyed from Kingston to the aquadome to be at her grandchild's birthday party.
LaSalle has a population of 74,000 and, unlike Pointe-Claire, it contracts out the management of its facility, including the programming, to a private company. The community is not organically involved and, as a result, the aquadome's 50-metre pool is not the beacon of programming innovation and user demand that is the case in Pointe-Claire. LaSalle's great strength and lesson for Kingston is the heavily used leisure pool, as symbolized by the palm trees.
A parenthetical note: Pointe-Claire is exploring the possibility of incorporating aqua park-like features into its original 50-metre pool once the new one is built.
The third stop of a long day was the less-well-known suburb of Terrebonne, a half-hour north of Montreal. It has a population of but 84,000, and words cannot do justice to the scale of this community's recreational ambitions for its citizens. This past September, it opened an aquatics complex with a 50-metre pool 10 lanes wide (25 metres across) and a leisure pool with all the features of the LaSalle Aquadome's, including palm trees (plastic this time, but let's not quibble) and a pirate ship.
The scale of the entire complex, integrated with hockey rinks - the heat produced in cooling the ice is recycled to warm the pools - and a vast Olympic-style gymnasium replete with all the requisite equipment, was well beyond anything any of us had seen. Jaws increasingly fell agape, especially when we learned that indoor and outdoor soccer pitches and a football gridiron are still to come.
Our smiling host, recreation manager Sylvie Lussier, pointed out that while the care and maintenance of the physical plant have been contracted out to private concerns, it is very much the community and the city that are responsible for programming. Judging from the hundreds of cars we saw in the parking lot, and the happy faces everywhere throughout the complex, we'd say it is a formula that is going to work.
On the bus ride back home, we exchanged thoughts on what we had learned from our excursion. There was a clear consensus: if three communities smaller than Kingston can find the community spirit and the funding to invest handsomely in aquatics facilities (and palm trees), and then build successful programming around them, then so can Kingston.
Because aquatics is so universal in appeal and scope, we must not sell ourselves short when we draw up plans for our new pool complex in Kingston. Let's do it right, with a creative mix of leisure, therapeutic and competitive elements that will appeal to all sectors of the community.
As with Pointe-Claire, LaSalle and Terrebonne, it's an investment that will pay priceless dividends down the road.
- Christopher West has been swimming since he was in his mother's womb. He is a member of the Kingston Association for Aquatics Recreation and Sport (KAARS) and a former member of the Whig-Standard's Community Editorial Board. Swimming Canada, Swim Ontario, KAARS and members of the public generously contributed funding for the Montreal trip. If you would like more information on this story as it evolves, or more background, go to: www.ktownaquatic centre.ca.
Pointe-Claire pool facts
Number of indoor municipal pools: 3 (including one of 50-metres).
Number of outdoor municipal pools: 7.
Number of Olympic athletes produced: 25.
Cost of 2nd 50-metre pool: $12 million.
New pool provincial funding share: 50 per cent.
Number of user visits annually: 475,000.
Daily average number of users: 1,300.
User fees: Low by comparison with other facilities.
Pool rental fees for clubs: Nil.
Operating deficit: $1 million.
Justification: "Our aquatics programs are why people want to live here. We want to maximize sport and wellness opportunities in the Pointe-Claire community."
Could the deficit be reduced or eliminated by increasing fees? Yes.
[Reproduced with permission of the author]