Every city has its equivalent of a town square. In Columbia, during summer at least, there are 21 town squares -- the swimming pools that dot nearly every neighborhood.
Teen-agers hit the volleyball courts, complete with imported sand, while younger kids line up for swim team practice and mothers congregate on lawn chairs to shoot the breeze. Columbia Mall may be the gathering place during winter months, but in summer the town pools have no equal.
Why is it, then, that Columbia's outdoor pools lose money on the order of $1.4 million a year?
The principal reason is that there are just too many of them. The National Recreation and Parks Association estimates that Columbia's 21 pools could accommodate a city of 425,000 people, five times the population of 80,000 that actually resides here. Despite the losses, though, there appears to be little sentiment for closing facilities or finding more profitable ways to operate them.
This year, three pools were identified as potential sites for adults-only swimming, to attract more members and revenue. But the Columbia Council backed away from the proposal in the wake of intense community opposition. The decision left the council with few options. It has turned to a pool task force to address the attendance problem and suggest alternatives by November.
One option should be to close some pools on a permanent or part-time basis. With so many pools within close proximity, it seems that this could be accomplished without much hardship on residents.
The last thing that should be considered, obviously, is to open new pools. Yet, in a fit of senselessness, the Columbia Council has approved $75,000 in planning funds for a pool in the Kendall Ridge neighborhood of Long Reach. If things go as scheduled, a pool could be up and operating in Kendall Ridge by spring 1995.
While every Columbia neighborhood traditionally was thought to deserve its own pool, reality suggests that is no longer reasonable. The outdoor pools are the largest financial drain on the Columbia Association, which operates them. Subsidizing the facilities with millions of dollars defies logic. As enjoyable as the pools are, the residents paying for recreational services are truly the ones being soaked.