Pooling resources: a Swim School story

Four-year-old Oliver Rutberg makes a splash at the Colorado Springs Rec Center, saved from closing by a public-private partnership.

Four-year-old Oliver Rutberg makes a splash at the Colorado Springs Rec Center, saved from closing by a public-private partnership.

About 20 kids splashed around one recent Friday night in the pool at the Colorado Springs Recreation Center at Memorial Park. It was “Parents’ Night” and a chance for parents to drop off the kiddos and have a date night.

Just one year ago, the city’s spigot had run dry on funding for its public swimming pools. The city was losing about $1 million a year on the pools and announced it would close five of its six facilities.

But Tina and Kevin Dessart, the owners of the Colorado Springs Swim School, stepped up to keep the water flowing in three of the city’s facilities: the rec center’s indoor pool and Wilson Ranch and Portal outdoor pools.

Last summer, 25,000 children and adults enjoyed a dip in the pool. “It’s been a blast — a lot of hours and a lot of thinking about what we can do here,” Kevin Dessart said.

At the heart of the deal the Dessarts struck with the city last April is an interesting public-private partnership. The city owns the swimming pools and is responsible for their upkeep. The Dessarts pay the city $10,000 a year to operate the three facilities. If their net profits exceed $500,000 a year, they will give 2 percent of those profits to the city.

That didn’t happen in the first year. The swim school is still playing catchup with its new role, Dessart said — it has four full-time employees, and this summer it will hire about 50 lifeguards and camp counselors. Dessart expects the operation to break even by September.

The couple knew running swimming pools would be risky business; after all, the city itself was losing money on them. But swimming is a huge part of their lives, and they believe in sharing their enthusiasm.

Tina was a collegiate swimmer and has been a swim instructor for 20 years. Kevin grew up on the East Coast, where the ocean was his swimming pool. The couple met in Florida when they swam on the same Masters swim team.

They abide by the philosophy that teaching a kid to swim is keeping a kid from drowning. Tina joined the Colorado Swim School in 2002 and took over as owner two years ago.

In 2010, about 1,000 students, including children who qualified for free or reduced prices, took swim lessons through the Dessarts’ swim school. No way they wanted the city pools to close, Kevin Dessart said.

City officials didn’t want that either. After the deal was signed last April, the parks department spent nearly $42,000 on materials and maintenance on the three pools, including fixing a leak at the Wilson Ranch pool and getting the rec center ready for reopening after it had sat idle for six months.

“It’s been a learning experience for both sides,” said Kim King, Colorado Springs parks administration manager. “We are continuing to work on the process. We’ve never done this before.”

The city still operates the Cottonwood Creek Recreation Center, but Monument Valley and Valley Hi outdoor pools are closed. There has been some interest in a similar public-private partnership for the two closed pools but nothing is firm, King said.

The Dessarts know it will take more than swimming lessons to keep the three facilities afloat. This spring and summer they have stepped up programs to include movie nights, indoor triathlons and eight-week adventure camps that cover everything from swimming to soccer.

“One goal is not to limit programming within the four walls,” Kevin Dessart said.

Meanwhile, the Dessarts have improvement plans for the rec center, which already features a 6,000-square-foot fitness room with cardio machines and free weights.

They want to fill in the old swimming pool, which was abandoned 11 years ago when the new pool was built on the other side of the building, and turn the 40,000-square-foot room into basketball courts and fitness classrooms. It’s in the five-year-plan and could cost about $1 million.

“I hear people say Colorado Springs doesn’t have a decent rec center,” Dessart said. “If we get this section done, we will have a killer rec center.”