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Why are more than a third of Kansas City's public swimming pools still closed?

Two teenagers play basketball at the Grove Park Pool in Kansas City, Missouri.
Chase Castor
Kansas City Beacon
Two teenagers play basketball at the Grove Park Pool in Kansas City, Missouri. There are seven public pools open in Kansas City this summer.

Kansas Citians have few options for swimming this July 4 weekend. Problems from maintenance to supply chain issues to lifeguard shortages have meant some pools in the region won’t be open this summer.

With the July 4 holiday weekend coming up, those wanting to spend time by public Kansas City pools are finding they have fewer options this year.

Problems from maintenance to supply chain issues to lifeguard shortages have meant some pools in the region won’t be open this summer.

In 2022, Kansas City Parks and Recreation permanently closed three swimming pools and temporarily closed Swope Park Pool, which had been operating for 80 years.

Kansas City is not alone in its struggle to keep pools open this year.

In Overland Park, Kansas, two of its six pools are closed for the 2022 season. Farther out, Denver has closed six of its 30 pools due to staffing shortages, and in St. Louis, two of its seven pools will not open this year.

In other municipalities, pool management has shifted their lifeguard recruitment strategies in order to address the ongoing nationwide lifeguard shortage. In doing so, the city of Olathe has been able to keep all five of its pools fully staffed for the summer.

Here’s a look at some of the reasons behind the pool closures and ideas for how to address the issues in the future.

Repairs, safety and deterioration

Kansas City permanently closed three of its 11 pools this year: Arbor Villa Park Pool, Ashland Square Pool and Jarboe Pool. All three are “drain and fill” pools, meaning that instead of filtering water, they are completely drained and refilled every day. They do not have a filtration system, and all cleaning is done by draining or by adding chemicals.

The city contracts with Midwest Pool Management to operate its public pools. Chad Beasley, the Kansas City manager with Midwest Pools, said drain-and-fill pools are no longer considered sanitary, which is why they were closed this year.

Gillham Park pool, another drain-and-fill pool that closed in 2016, was replaced with a sprayground, and Beasley said that the same will likely happen at one of the three closed pools.

He did not know whether Kansas City had any plans to open other pools to replace the permanently closed ones.

Patrons enjoy the water at the Grove Park Pool in Kansas City, Missouri.
Chase Castor
Kansas City Beacon
Patrons enjoy the water at the Grove Park Pool in Kansas City, Missouri.

The Beacon contacted the Kansas City Department of Parks and Recreation for comment, but because the aquatics manager was out of the office, they deferred to Beasley for an interview.

Beasley said Swope Park Pool, which was built in the 1940s, is closed due to maintenance problems that he attributes to the pool’s age. He hopes that it can reopen next year, but he said he doesn’t have any information about how long the repairs will take or whether the Kansas City government will pursue them.

When the city opened its pools in June, three others were also closed due to necessary maintenance, but they have since opened. Beasley said this is, in part, due to supply chain issues disrupting repair schedules.

Midwest Pools did not detect some of the maintenance problems until they filled the pools for the first time, and at that point, replacement parts could not be delivered in time for the June 11 opening.

The dramatic drop in lifeguards

One of the primary reasons public pools have struggled to stay open is a nationwide lifeguard shortage, said Olathe Pools aquatic program manager Shelby Duncan.

Since 2016, the total number of recreational protective service workers, which includes lifeguards and ski patrol, has decreased by 18% in the United States. In both Kansas and Missouri, it dropped by 41%.

In the Kansas City area, the industry has lost almost half of its lifeguards in just a few years. In 2018, there were 1,440 lifeguards and ski patrol in the metropolitan area. By 2021, this number had dropped to 770.

Part of the reason is the pandemic, Duncan said. In Overland Park, the initial lockdown closed all public pools in the summer of 2020. Prairie Village, Kansas, and Independence, Missouri, made the same decision.

In general, pools rely heavily on returning staff and referrals for their lifeguard teams. Once a pool loses staff, Duncan said, it’s difficult to recover and rebuild their number of lifeguards.

“Those facilities that weren’t able to open or chose not to open in 2020 did not have any returners for 2021 and still do not have them now,” Duncan said. “Having those returning kids really helps. Not only do I not have to hire as many, but they are our number one recruiter for new staff.”

In addition to this loss, Duncan said, students may also be choosing to work a retail or food service job that may pay a similar wage and does not have an upfront training cost.

In Kansas City, a lifeguard certification program can cost around $250 and takes three days to complete. And given the surplus of retail jobs that have been available since 2020, the switch to retail or food service is a much easier decision to make.

Duncan said that students have also opted increasingly to work as summer interns instead of as lifeguards.

“We used to get kids throughout college, but now they have to go do internships,” she said. “Everything’s so much more demanding on them, and they don’t necessarily have the time to commit to summer jobs anymore.”

How Olathe changed its lifeguard program

The problems of lifeguard recruitment have touched all municipalities in the area, but some have been more successful than others in keeping their doors open.

In Olathe, pool management made a few key pivots that Duncan believes have allowed them to mitigate the effects of the national shortage.

For one, Olathe waived the lifeguard certification fee for applicants. Previously, they would reimburse employees for this fee once hired, but since many applicants do not have the money to pay for the training up front, waiving this fee allowed them to consider more applicants.

Olathe pools also launched a paid internship program for their lifeguards to make the job more appealing for college students worried about having resume gaps. This year, there are five lifeguards working through this program, in departments like finances or IT. Duncan has been working with local universities to make sure the internship also meets school credit requirements.

Most days, these interns will work on internship-specific duties in the morning before the pool opens, or on one or two days during the week.

“It helps me out because we really benefit from kids being able to return year after year, with that maturity and that experience to help guide our new staff,” Duncan said.

This story was originally published on the Kansas City Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Josh Merchant is The Kansas City Beacon's local government reporter.
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