Popular and diverse, Goodman Pool remains Madison’s only public swim facility

PHOTOS: Goodman Pool opens for summer

One winner with the recent run of steamy summer weather is Madison’s Goodman Pool.

The city’s lone public pool is on track for its biggest attendance in years, with paid admissions up nearly 5 percent through July over 2015.

Last year, Goodman Pool on Madison’s South Side drew 52,455 patrons according to city figures but 2016 is on track to easily pass that.

Named after the late Irwin and Robert Goodman—who donated $2.7 million to the $5.3 million construction cost—the 1,000-person-capacity pool, which opened in 2006, remains Madison’s only public swimming facility.

For years, lucky kids from affluent families could enjoy swimming and taking lessons in private pools, most on the city’s west side. But Madison was always reluctant to pursue a public swimming pool and instead offered dozens of lifeguard-staffed beaches.

“Who needs a pool when you’ve got such beautiful lakes?” was the argument — although many smaller Midwestern communities, along with big cities like Milwaukee and Chicago, have long maintained public outdoor swimming pools.

Of course, swimming in a Madison lake can be less than appealing with the weeds, smell and dangerous algae blooms. As a kid growing up here, some of my worst memories were being forced to take swimming lessons in scummy water. I lived for the days when I got invited to be a guest to a private pool or our mom drove us all the way out to Blue Mound State Park to use that public pool.

Finally in the late 1980s, with the lakes seemingly getting worse each year, city leaders began talking seriously about a public pool. Part of the argument was that lower income children needed a wholesome and healthy way to spend time outside in the summer.

An initial site was eyed at Olin-Turville Park on John Nolen Drive, with the idea a public pool there could serve as something of a gateway to the city. But that plan, which enjoyed the support of Mayor Paul Soglin and others, went down to defeat in 1993 after a coalition of lefty environmentalists and righty budget hawks forced a referendum.

Eventually the city got off the snide and thanks to the generous support of the Goodman brothers and others moved forward for a pool on the other side of John Nolen Drive at Franklin Field. That centrally located site at 325 E. Olin Ave. was selected over competing sites at Elver and Warner parks, with the promise city officials would pursue more pools at a later date – a promise that hasn’t been kept.

But starting 11 years ago, kids of all ages and backgrounds could finally splash around in cool, clean water in the city of Madison. The Goodman Pool was wildly popular that first year, drawing over 71,000 admissions and often turning people away on the hottest days when it hit capacity.

Attendance slipped somewhat after that first year, prompting complaints in some circles about $131,000 in city taxpayer support. By 2009, however, Goodman Pool reached the break even point under Mayor Dave Cieslewicz amid changes in hours, reduced staffing and use of ambient air to heat the water to save energy.

Today, Goodman Pool remains arguably the most racially diverse and enjoyable public gathering place in the city. Over 100 kids are now part of the Goodman Waves swimming team and hundreds more take advantage of the subsidized swimming lessons.

(OK, I’m biased given we live three blocks away and can quickly walk over for a cool dip or a lap swim in the new dedicated lanes, increasingly popular with local triathletes.)

The pool, which is now accounted for as part the overall “Aquatics” section of the city Parks Department budget is also hitting its financial targets. That $151,000 item includes a subsidy for lifeguards at city beaches, which remain 100 percent free.
“We’re on pace to meet or slightly exceed revenue targets in 2016 and expenses are also on budget,” says parks spokeswoman Ann Shea, adding the pool benefits from community funding partners such as the Goodman Foundation and Shelley Glover Foundation.

Unfortunately, the city hasn’t move forward on additional pools – although it did complete a splash park at Elver Park to serve kids in the challenged southwest side neighborhood, largely with donations.

A private organization headed by former Ald. Dorothy Borchardt is continuing to pursue a year-round swimming facility on the city’s north side. The group is eying an aquatic health and fitness center at the Warner Park Community Recreation Center featuring a warm water therapy pool, a 50-meter competition pool and a zero depth leisure pool.

With a $32 million estimated pricetag, the facility wouldn’t come cheap. But Borchardt says it could be built in phases with all private fundraising.
“One of our goals is to offer affordable swim lessons so every child will have the opportunity to learn to swim,” says Borchardt, adding that the 50-meter competitive pool could host swim meets most weekends to help cover operating expenses.
The group was looking for $50,000 from the city to help pay for a feasibility study but so far has been rebuffed and told there were no plans to pursue another public pool in the near term. Borchardt is undeterred, however.

“If the feasibility study shows it can’t be done without city funds we will understand; but to not at least try would be missing an opportunity to provide swim lessons, rehabilitation, fitness activities and jobs that will be an asset to the community,” she argues.

Given that Madison seems to come up with money to chase a Public Market or review its Police Department, you’d think it could find a few dollars to study a proven and healthy long-term investment in the kids. We are home, after all, to Ironman Wisconsin and renowned as a “Fit City.”