Lanai residents hope county will reopen island's only swimming pool
By Ilima Loomis
LANAI CITY — In another sign of hard times, residents have been without a place to swim in Lanai City since landowner Castle & Cooke Resorts closed the island's only public pool nine months ago.
Lanai residents said senior citizens used the pool to swim laps, and that it was an important summer gathering place for children who couldn't drive down the mountain to the beach. But Castle & Cooke President Harry Saunders said the shutdown was a necessary budget cut at a time when the resort has been laying off employees in the face of low occupancy and a dismal economy.
"If we were running at 90 percent occupancy, we'd probably still be operating it," he said.
Now residents are hoping Maui County will step in to take over the pool and reopen it. But with the county facing at least a $44 million budget deficit, officials said taking on the task of staffing, maintaining and operating a new pool is not in their plans.
Castle & Cooke closed the pool in April, shutting down the island's only movie theater at the same time. It had operated the pool as a public facility since building it for the community about 20 years ago, at the same time the company was starting its resort development at Manele.
Pools at the Manele Bay Hotel and the Lodge at Koele are for hotel guests and not open to the public.
Faced with a 24 percent decrease in visitor arrivals over the past year, Castle & Cooke Resorts and the Four Seasons have laid off or furloughed about 20 percent of their combined work force, and cut hours by 10 to 15 percent for workers that remain, Saunders said.
Closing the pool "was a budget decision — the number of people using it and the operating cost," he said. "We felt that we had to shut it down."
According to a report provided by Castle & Cooke to the Maui County Council in April, the company spent about $190,000 to operate the pool in 2008.
Tom Burke, owner of Lanai Fitness Center, who managed the community pool for Castle & Cooke from 2003 until it closed, said attendance was "poor," especially in winter months. At an elevation of around 1,600 feet, Lanai City is known for being chilly and damp.
"I used to teach pool aerobics, but the weather is cool," he said. "You'd get out of that pool, and it would be real cold."
The pool averaged just nine swimmers a day in winter, he said, while as many as 35 to 50 people might use the pool on a weekend day in summer.
Burke said he hopes the county will take it over.
"We're the only island that doesn't have a county pool," he said.
But he acknowledged that it was a difficult year to make the request.
"It's hard," he said. "The county is going to take on a large amount of money for a small population."
A number of Lanai residents said the pool was an important community resource.
"There were quite a few older people who would go just to swim laps during the day," said Lanai City Realtor Kay Okamoto. "And then after school, of course, you'd have the kids, because there's nothing else. The kids can't go to the beach, because that's eight miles away, so it was one of the main sources of recreation for our nondriving kids."
The pool complex also included a workout facility, a "heavily used" meeting room and public restrooms that also served a nearby track and walking path, she noted. All are now closed, she said.
Stephen Ferguson was concerned about an "overall lack of anything for kids to do" in Lanai City, now that both the pool and the movie theater are closed.
Ferguson coaches the Lanai High School paddling team, and each fall he would start training his team for the season with two weeks of conditioning, including running and swimming at the community pool.
One purpose of the pool training was to get a sense of his paddlers' swimming abilities before taking them into the ocean.
"Without a pool, I had a hard time evaluating my swimmers," he said. "It was a big change in my season."
He said he also hopes that the county will reopen the pool for the community.
"That would be ideal," he said.
But Mayor Charmaine Tavares said the county would be very reluctant to take over a facility that would include a nearby track, ball field and park for a total annual operating cost estimated at $500,000.
The county is facing a $40 million to $60 million budget shortfall and will look at cutting existing programs, furloughing workers and raising taxes to make it through the 2011 fiscal year, budget officials have said.
"For us to expand into a new program — when we're struggling to keep the programs we already have going — is going to take more discussion," Tavares said.
"It's something I wish we could do," she said. "But it's not 2007. If it was 2007, I think the decision would be a lot easier. But this is a time when we're really struggling."
The county has researched the pool and determined that its construction and operation was not a condition of Castle & Cooke's approval for developments at Manele and Koele.
"It would be nice if it were — we wouldn't be having this discussion," Tavares said. "We couldn't find anything that could be called official between the company and the county."
Maui County Council Member Sol Kaho'ohalahala noted that he successfully added a $93,600 appropriation to the county's 2010 budget to cover lifeguards for the pool, after a large majority of Lanai residents at a council budget meeting on the island indicated that they wanted to see the county take over and run the facility, and submitted a petition asking for the county's support.
"To my knowledge, there has been no movement by the administration to implement any action towards the opening of the pool facility on Lanai," he wrote in an e-mail.
Saunders said operating Lanai's community pool should be a county function.
"It's part of Maui County," he said. "They operate pools on both Maui and Molokai. Our position is, if it's good for Maui and Molokai, it should be good for Lanai."