Every summer since 1922, locals and tourists have flocked to Garden City’s Big Pool. Once promoted as “the world’s largest outdoor free concrete municipal swimming pool,” it holds around 2 million gallons of water. “Holds” might now be an overstatement.
The Big Pool leaks. A lot.
Around 200,000 gallons of water from the pool seep into the ground per day — even after renovations that replaced pipes and sealed cracks in the concrete.
Even for a pool of its size, the water loss is “excessive,” according to Fred Jones, Garden City’s water resource manager. “It's kinda to the point where we feel like it's probably nearing the end of its service life.”
As the pool’s centennial nears, concern over costs and repairs have grown. The city has been asking residents this year about replacing it, though nothing’s been decided yet.
Drip, drip drip
Refilling the leaking pool costs Garden City $1,000 a day. During the period that the pool is open from Memorial Day until Labor Day, the city spends between $700,000 and $800,000 on repairs, staff and water, according to Assistant City Manager Jennifer Cunningham, who oversees the operation of the pool.
The pool’s water comes from the city’s potable water supply, which is drawn from the Ogallala and Dakota aquifers. Watering and irrigation of landscapes and lawns is the biggest consumer of water in the summer, but Jones said the 200,000 gallons the pool loses each day is still a worry.
Coating the concrete in the pool’s deep end would stop the leakage. The city spent $150,000 to coat the baby pool, the shallow area, and the plunge pool. But Cunningham said the deep end would cost another $750,000, and would only solve the problem for about five years in Garden City’s harsh weather.
“Concrete breaks down over time, especially when it’s out in the cold in the wintertime and it’s out in the heat in the summertime and it’s filled with water,” she said. “It expands, it contracts and eventually breaks down.”
Instead of continuing to throw money into an old facility with porous concrete, Cunningham said bonding the amount spent on the pool and its repairs could pay for a new swimming facility.
The swimming days go way back
During the first weekend in June, Sherry Frizzell, 57, spent time at the Big Pool with her family like she’s done since she was born.
Originally the pool was just one, undivided expanse of water. There have been upgrades over the years that added swim lanes, diving boards and an inflatable obstacle course in the pool’s deep end. A walkway now divides the pool’s deep and shallow ends. Water slides empty into part of the shallow end and a separate wading pool with an elephant slide sits at the entrance.
“I want to see the pool stay,” Frizell said. “Instead of putting other stuff in, they should have fixed what was wrong in the first place.”
Sixteen-year-old Ethan Rich has been going to the pool for most of his life too — since he was 3 or 4.
“It helps in the summer when it’s hot,” he said.
Back in 1921, Garden City’s Mayor H.O. Trinkle liked to swim too and he wanted a pool. So, members of the community started digging.
“It was dug with horse-drawn slips, which is kind of like a great big shovel pulled by horses, and men with shovels,” recounted Laurie Oshel, assistant director of the Finney County Museum.
Ice skaters glided across the frozen surface in the late 1920s — before the water was drained every year.
Two elephants were trained to walk over from the Lee Richardson Zoo next door and swam in the pool from 1987, when they were babies, until around 2004 when they were relocated to Florida, according to former education curator at the zoo, Whitney Buckman.
Former Garden City resident Hank Avila, now 74, remembers taking swimming lessons at the pool in 1950 and 1951. That was soon after Latino residents gained access.
The “water was cold,” he said.
But those lessons were evidence of a breakthrough. Avila recalls that some members of the Hispanic community never learned to swim because the pool was off limits. A few years before he learned to swim, the Latino community had petitioned the city for access to the pool and been denied.
The pool ultimately became integrated before restaurants and movie theaters in the area, and turned into a haven.
“I had a lot of fun there — it was part of daily life during the summer,” Avila said. He and his uncle snuck in on hot nights after hours.
Black residents in Garden City fought longer to gain access to city’s pool.
In a July 12, 1950, Garden City Daily Telegram article, one man demanded that black community members be allowed to enter the pool. S.M. Hawkins spoke at a Garden City Commission meeting and, the newspaper reported, said, “that it was all right for Negroes to participate when it came to paying taxes, but apparently it isn’t all right for Negroes to use the swimming pool which is supported by these same taxes.”
At the same meeting, Commissioner Al Gottschalk said, “It just has never been the policy to admit Negroes.”
Through the 1960s, about 65,000 people visited the pool annually, according to documents at the Finney County Museum.
A new Big Pool?
Around 300 people use the pool every day now. Cunningham said one reason attendance has declined is because of the cost, $2 per person per day. Admission was free until 2003.
“I would love to be able to drive down there and instead of seeing a hundred to 200 kids swimming, that I see 2,000 kids swimming,” she said. “From all over town and enjoying it every day.”
To decide its future, Garden City officials gathered input all over town about the Big Pool. They talked with the Realtor’s Association, the Lion’s Club, the county health coalition, every Garden City student from 3rd through 12th grades, along with kids from nearby Holcomb, Lakin, Deerfield, and Cimarron.
Across all age groups — from households with kids to adults over age 56 — the majority responding to the city’s survey said they wanted a facility similar to the existing pool. Other options, including multiple community pools, splash parks or a water park, all ranked lower.
“This is what Garden City is known for,” said Lana Steinmetz, 46, a Garden City resident who has been coming to the pool since she was 8, hopes it will stay open. “They already put so much money into it.”
Corinne Boyer is a reporter based in Garden City for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and HPPR covering health, education and politics. Follow her @Corinne_Boyer or email cboyer at hppr dot org
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