There is a curious pairing of the mounting troubles at the Y.M.C.A. East Hampton RECenter pool and the news that a private operator from Manhattan appears likely to manage a new aquatic center at the Montauk Playhouse that will be constructed largely with public money. Complaints and health concerns about the RECenter predate the Y’s management of the town-owned facility, and officials should be wary of being part of any long-term arrangement when the Montauk pool opens without first heavily scrutinizing its plans and demanding ironclad assurances that it will be properly run and affordable.
The Montauk Playhouse Community Center Foundation, which has spent years and countless hours working up a design and business plan for the new aquatic center, envisions selling membership and day passes to offset the cost of its operation. Construction is anticipated to cost about $11 million, of which East Hampton Town’s share would be $5 million. The town also owns the land on which the facility would be built. The Playhouse Foundation would be responsible for how the aquatic center is run, but, in our view, the town board should closely review any prospective decisions. This is especially so, as town taxpayers would be responsible for the cost of any structural repairs. The lowest bid for recent work at the trouble-plagued RECenter in East Hampton Village was $2.32 million — nearly twice what the town had budgeted.
Imagine Swimming, the for-profit company that appears likely to manage the pool programs, is based in Manhattan and charges $25 a day at its Upper West Side facility. Group lessons are $55 for an hour; private sessions are $220 each. Memberships are $124 annually; family memberships are not available, according to its website. Kids from 10 to 17 can swim in supervised hourlong workouts on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for a platinum-plated $330 per month. We have not seen an operating agreement between Imagine Swimming and the Playhouse Foundation, but a business plan prepared for the pool project envisions about $500,000 in income during its first year, up to nearly $1 million in year five. At a town board meeting last week, Imagine Swimming and Lars Merseburg, the company’s founder, were introduced as all but a done deal.
It is difficult to tell if they are mostly from cranky New Yorkers, but a worrying number of online reviews of Imagine Swimming have been withering, including about its rigid registration policy and frequent changes among its instructional staff. Apparently, because the Playhouse Foundation is a private entity, it will not need to go through a formal bidding process in selecting an operator for the aquatic center, the way the town would if it were entirely funding its own facility.
We have seen this play out unfavorably before. The baked-in absence of public oversight runs the risk of repeating the mistakes at the RECenter — and pricing out some would-be users with excessive fees. In exchange for a $5 million construction commitment and unknown ongoing upkeep costs that could also run into the millions, the town board must demand a leading role in determining who runs the Montauk pool, what its open hours will be, and how much it will actually cost to use it. A hands-off approach is not enough and runs the risk of shutting residents with modest incomes out of something that they helped pay to build and then would have to pay more to maintain.