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July 17, 2014

Utility bills soaking up aquatic center

Stivers Aquatic and Wellness Center faces decreasing revenue, high utilities

BARBOURVILLE — Once during Tuesday’s Town Hall Meeting in Barbourville, it was noted, “We’ve got a $7 million crown jewel that we could lose.”

Those comments were about the Stivers Aquatic and Wellness Center, which has hit rough times because of decreasing revenue and high utility bills from the hard winter.

“For a wellness center, it’s not doing well financially. It’s very sick,” Barbourville’s Interim Mayor Darren West told the audience at the meeting.

Formed by Knox Partners — a corporation created by Union College, the City of Barbourville, the Knox County Fiscal Court, and KCEOC Community Action Partnership — the center opened to rave reviews in late 2011.

Boasting what was called “the only Olympic-sized pool between Lexington and Knoxville,” the center’s seen numerous swim meets and is used heavily by high schools in the region, as well as by Union College and Lincoln Memorial University.

It’s estimated the big pool brings in 10,000 people to the facility a year.

But mainly due to utility bills soaking up the money this year, the cash flow’s drying up.

The Stivers Center’s Wellness Board’s Chairman, Randell Young, said it’s a situation that’s making the facility float in choppy waters.

“Our money situation’s been overwhelming,” Young said, adding the facility’s gas bill has doubled, due in part to the rough winter. Another problem he indicated concerns the gas well the facility uses, which he said doesn’t provide enough natural gas.

“We only have one (gas well), and it was $3,000 for over a year, but we’ve been paying double lately due to the rough winter,” Young said. “This month the gas bill was roughly $6,800, and the electric and water bill was around $11,000.”

“We just don’t have enough to pay our utility bills for the next two to three months,” Young said.

Paul Dole, KCEOC’s president/CEO, said, “It’s a continuing problem. They haven’t been able to generate enough cash flow, and with utility bills to be paid, it’s been a problem. The city originally drilled a gas well, and it’s hooked in, but it’s only providing about two to three days’ worth of gas there.”

Dole said it’s estimated it could cost up to $100,000 to improve the well’s flow.

“We’ve asked the city and the county to help, and they have been supportive, but they haven’t contributed any money. They were the original Knox Partners. Basically it’s been KCEOC and Union College that’s been putting the money in to keep it going,” Dole said.

Some other problems have developed at the center. It’s not getting enough memberships and lifeguard staffing has been a challenge.

“I think we underestimated the income and memberships, and thought it would be a little less expensive, especially the lifeguard situation,” Young said. “The state requires us to have four lifeguards, not two.  Also it was thought Union College could staff all the lifeguards on work study, but they can only work eight hours a week, and have to be paid. We spent all that Union College and KCEOC had for the center and we’re still about $75,000 in the red. Knox Partners had $30,000, but all that does is help us in the next month. And the Stivers Center’s director and their swim coach, Dee Dole, hasn’t taken any pay for over a year.”

At Tuesday’s Town Hall Meeting, West suggested the Barbourville Tourist and Recreation Commission use some of their funding to promote the Stivers Aquatic and Wellness Center. He also suggested businesses provide memberships to the wellness facility as a benefit for their employees.

On Wednesday, Young said, “We were hoping employers would help with providing memberships at the center, and receive some offsets with that from medical insurance providers. That’s what KCEOC does. They pay for their employees to be members of the center and have benefits, and an actives fee is paid for Union College students to use the center.”

Knox County’s Judge-Executive, J. M. Hall, was there when Young came to the fiscal court with the news about the Stivers Aquatic and Wellness Center being in the red.

Hall said the county is looking into boosting the center’s income by having physical therapists use the pool as well as other programs.

When asked what can be done to improve the situation, Dole reported, “One, we need memberships and have the city and county to step up and be financially supportive.”

Dole said, “Anyone who hasn’t visited the facility needs to, and it’s relatively inexpensive. We’ve kept the prices down to encourage people to join. And the facility has capabilities to host major swim events. We have people who travel from seven or eight counties, plus in Tennessee, to come to the swim meets, and some of them come on a regular basis as members. We just need another 300-400 regular members.”

Young — a long-time member of the Stivers Center’s Wellness Board, who has served as the board’s chairman for the past two months, had the last word.

“I know there’s been some communications with our elected people, but I’m not sure what they can do at this time. The public needs to be aware. It (the center) can’t sit there quietly and have nothing be done. A big question is what would happen if it closes.”

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