In the deep end

Last updated 10:36 08/12/2012
Sink or Swim
BRUCE MERCER/Fairfax NZ

On a mission: Members of the Save the Municipal Pools group, from left, Megan Bourke, Katherine Luketina and Judy Patterson.

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A Hamilton City Council report recommends that the Municipal Pools be closed. Tracey Cooper reports. 

In a nutshell, the Municipal Pools are a dog. And a very sick one at that.

Well, perhaps that is not entirely accurate, because if the historic swimming complex in Hamilton's Victoria St were actually a canine, the SPCA would be able to mount a strong case of neglect against its owner, the Hamilton City Council.

It is hard to come up with any other word than neglect after being shown around the complex by council staff, who are recommending the pool complex - opened 100 years ago and one of the oldest civic structures in the city - be closed and "an alternative future use for the site [be] investigated and decided upon".

Rusted pipes and outdated infrastructure, rotting timber, obsolete and inefficient plant and equipment, cracks in pool walls, subsidence underneath the pools, shabby changing rooms and a generally tatty look do little to project the view of an asset worth looking after.

It leaks at something like half a litre per second through the many cracks and, from full, it only takes about 12 days for the entire 340 cubic-metre pool to drain out.

The council report into the pool's future notes there has been "minimal" maintenance in the past 10 years.

In short, it is way past its use-by date, due largely to neglect.

Katherine Luketina, from the lobby group Sink or Swim, reckons it was about 15 years ago when plans were mooted for a new swimming complex at Rototuna, with the accompanying idea that the Municipal Pools - known to generations of Hamiltonians as The Munies - would quietly fade into history, as so much of the city's other heritage structures have done.

The Rototuna plan was put on the back burner this year, but the problem of what to do with The Munies remains.

Given Hamilton's propensity for knocking down its old buildings, it is perhaps surprising The Munies have survived as long as they have.

They were opened by Mayor Arthur Manning in December 1912 after the Hamilton Borough Council raised a loan to build them and were named the Coronation Baths in honour of Edward VII, who succeeded his mother, Queen Victoria, in 1911.

The faded sign on the steel fence at the pool entrance hails them as the "oldest in-ground pool in New Zealand".

That is a debatable claim, but while the council has made a big deal out of marking 50 years of the Founders Theatre, it is doing nothing official to mark 100 years of The Munies.

The pools have seen massive changes over the years. Facades facing Victoria St have come and gone, the diving boards were removed and part of the main pool was filled in in 1977.

Heritage consultant Ann McEwan - who sits on the Auckland Council's Heritage Advisory Panel, which has just overseen the impressive $15.8 million redevelopment of Auckland's Tepid Pools - says The Munies are still a valuable asset and something like what happened in Auckland needs to happen in Hamilton.

"They had people chomping at the bit to get back in the pools. They were dearly loved by the public, a really useful city amenity and they happened to be historic. The way they've done them, you would want to swim there.

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"The [Hamilton] council talks about place-making and about city identity, and creating a family-friendly city centre where people will live and work and play, but they won't, because all you can do is get pissed on Friday night in Hood St," she says.

"The irony is, in 1911, the people of Hamilton raised a municipal loan to build the pools, and now it's OK that they just let it rot. Show some respect."

The council staff report going to the council next week touches on the heritage of the pools as a "key issue", noting it has "historical significance for Hamilton and the community".

It also says the pool's "central location provides a level of social connectivity for the city and offers patrons in the CBD and surrounding inner suburbs with a place to swim and enjoy during their lunch hour and after work".

It is that connectivity McEwan and fans of The Munies would like to see enhanced.

It is undeniably a prime spot, with views up to the cathedral and down to the river.

It does not take an urban design degree to see how a progressive and forward-thinking council could turn The Munies into something stunning.

But McEwan, who has long lambasted the Hamilton City Council for paying lip-service to heritage issues, says while the city has a vision of creating a liveable, family-friendly central city, "can we have some commitment to actually making that happen?"

Along with a personal commitment from councillors when they vote on the issue on Tuesday, it will also require a significant financial commitment to get the pools back in shape.

A new aquatic centre on the existing site has been costed at $6.2 million, while replacing the pool would come in at $4.57m.

Even shutting the pools permanently and turning the site into green space would come in at $655,000.

Of course, the city has no budget for any of the 10 options being presented.

However, compared with other recent big-ticket items in the city - think Claudelands, Waikato Stadium, the V8s, Hood St and Garden Place upgrades, car parks being bought, sold and bought back again - $6.2m does not seem an insurmountable obstacle, even allowing for the council's current aversion to risk and focus on debt reduction.

Luketina and others from the lobby group say their own investigations are at odds with the council cost estimates.

"We have had reports done by our own engineer and this can be brought back up to standard for the next 15 years for $1.5m," she says. "It's just got to be upgraded to modern standards."

There is no argument about the benefits of swimming and not just as a way to stop drowning.

It helps with health issues such as obesity, diabetes and - as Sir John Kirwan advocates - depression.

And the council acknowledges there would be a loss of lane space - particularly outdoors - if The Munies were closed.

As Luketina points out, health issues mean not everyone is able to swim in indoor pools.

Luketina's submission to the council showed losing The Munies would see the ratio of lanes per population rocket to among the highest in the country.

The council has focused on solutions involving other city pools in its Partner Pools project, such as Waikato University, Te Rapa Primary, Fairfield College and Hillcrest Normal School or expansion at Waterworld.

But Munies fans point out the number of dwellings within one kilometre of The Munies is similar to that around the Gallagher Aquatic Centre in Melville and far higher than Waterworld.

And it is growing, thanks to apartments in Hood St and Opoia Rd and other developments on the drawing board.

"To rip it out of an existing suburb and give it to a new suburb is just cruel," Luketina says.

McEwan says it is not that clear that the council actually owns The Munies.

"When you look on the council website, for the last couple of years, you go and find the Hamilton City Council supposedly has two pools, Waterworld and Gallagher. Then you get to partnership pools and one is The Munies, which is owned by the city."

The Munies are also popular with schools, even those closer to other swimming pools.

Several schools travel from outside Hamilton, including Hilltop School in Taupo and St Patrick's Primary in Te Awamutu, both towns with their own swimming facilities.

The tiered seating, secure area, central location, cost and ease of access are all noted as reasons for their popularity.

There is also dispute around the council's pool usage numbers. The council report shows patronage figures for 2011-12 at 13,557, which was "considerably low compared with Waterworld and Gallagher Aquatic Centre".

That, according to Luketina, is because the council never told anyone The Munies were actually open and available for use.

In 2008, when the pools were being run by the Hamilton Swimming Club, it had 64,000 customers, Luketina says.

McEwan agrees the council has done little to promote The Munies.

"I think that they cannot demonstrate that they have valiantly tried to keep it going. They didn't publicise it and no-one knew it was there except the people who used it."

Sink or Swim is doing its utmost to make more people aware of the plight of The Munies and while the council is ignoring its centenary, the lobby group is hosting its own birthday party at 11am today with a three-tiered cake. People who have fond memories of the pools are invited to attend and are asked to note down their memories of the pools. These will be attached to the fence.

Sink or Swim hopes some councillors will attend, but is cynical about the open day at the Founders Theatre being held on the same day.

Ultimately, Luketina says, "actions speak louder than words".

"They say they believe in heritage and it would be a scandal if this was thrown away."

Not surprisingly, McEwan agrees.

She would like to see a conservation plan developed, The Munies upgraded and "reopened for next summer, please".

And she questions how the council feels able to ask the owners of other heritage properties to care for them.

"Where is your moral and legal authority if you are not a good steward of your own heritage assets?

"It's not like the council has no money. It's really about how we're spending it."

But for Luketina and others, it is even simpler than that.

"All we want is somewhere to swim."

- Waikato

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