Swimmers warming up to Middlebury pool: Town repairs are now making a difference

MIDDLEBURY — It’s one thing to persuade members of a summer swim team between the ages of 6 and 18 to attend 8 a.m. practices every weekday.
It’s another if the water in the pool barely reaches 70 degrees on a sunny morning, never mind if it’s rainy and cool.
For decades the swimmers and coaches of the Middlebury Swim Team faced that dilemma, even after solar panels and heating sheets that float on the water’s surface overnight were installed in 2013 at the town’s pool in the Middlebury Recreation Park.
“It used to be so cold,” said veteran MST swimmer Calista Carl, 18. “When we swam it was freezing. I couldn’t even be in the water because I was turning purple. It was just painful.”
The single most dramatic change among many at the pool over the past four years — including leak repairs and a host of new elements: a pump, electrical and chemical feeds, and upgrades to the pool house that include siding, paint and floor mats — is the water temperature.
The initial installation of the panels and sheets helped a little, but the system never worked quite right. This past spring, new Middlebury Public Works operations director Bill Kernan called in the original installer of the equipment, Bristol Electronics, to help out.
Kernan said he just wanted to make sure “we were operating the system correctly.”
Now, with the cooperation of new pool manager Sabrina Butterfield and the pool’s lifeguards, who make sure the sheets are deployed properly every evening, suddenly the morning pool temperatures have risen from that marginal 70 degrees to a range between 74 and 78 degrees.
“I don’t know that we did anything physically to the solar system itself,” Kernan said. “When I got here we brought the supplier of that thing, which was Bristol Electronics, and just reviewed the operation with them.”
Carl described the results.
“It’s definitely warmer, easier to get in (the water) in the morning,” she said, adding, “It’s easier to get up for practice. You don’t want to just lie in bed where it’s warm.”
According to another Middlebury Swim Team (MST) veteran, 17-year-old Archie Milligan, the temperature change is more than just pleasant — it helps athletes’ performance.
“Because it was so cold all of your muscles would not want to work,” Milligan said. “But now it’s a nice temperature, where we can work hard and make improvements.”
The other upgrades matter to MST swimmers, too.
“All the things, the siding and the other stuff, make the pool seem more professional,” Milligan said. “It makes it seem more official, more professional, and overall a better experience, I think.”
Longtime MST parent and team volunteer Jenn Staats said Middlebury’s pool is making a good impression. She recalled overhearing a conversation this summer at the scoring table when MST hosted the Burlington Tennis Club.
“One of the moms sitting next to me said to another mother, ‘I always love coming to Middlebury. It’s such a nice pool. It’s so pleasant. We have such a fun time here,’” Staats said. “It was a really encouraging thing.”
Staats traced the start of the series of improvements back to 2013 and to Middlebury Parks and Recreation Director Terri Arnold.
“She has known what has been lacking, what has been tatty, and not only how to fix it, but how to be persuasive with the town fathers and mothers as far as saying, this is an asset, we can do better,” Staats said. “She’s really making it into something that is pride-provoking.”
According to Arnold, the first step in upgrading the pool was figuring out what was going wrong.
“In early 2013, one of the first things I learned about the town pool is that it had been leaking over 2 million gallons per summer season,” Arnold said. “Basically we were replenishing one-seventh of the pool each day, which means the loss of chemicals as well as water.”
The town paid New York firm Aquatic Development Group $4,500 to find the leaks and perform an inspection that determined the water loss was occurring between the concrete ledge of the pool and its stainless steel gutters.
For another $5,575, Pool World tested pipes for possible further leaks, checked valves to make sure they were still functional, and installed a handicap lift. Bristol Electronics then installed the solar system for $7,544, for which the town received a state incentive of about $4,200.
For another $28,273, Arnold said the town this year hired Allen Pool and Spas to install a more efficient pump, an automatic chemical injection system that means pool employees do not have to handle the chemicals, and nine grates to replace broken pool gutters.
This year, the town also decoupled the pool’s electrical system from the adjacent privately operated Memorial Sports Center, to which it paid about $6,000 for 102 days of power in 2016.
Kernan is confident that move will generate savings. He added some of that $28,273 from a town capital fund will be returned in the form of an Efficiency Vermont rebate that will range up to $3,000 depending on final pool energy use figures. 
“I’m expecting a very substantial savings, hopefully. Because the Memorial Sports Center is such a big user there was a substantial surcharge passed onto us for using their power,” Kernan said.
Meanwhile, Rotary Club volunteers painted the pool house’s new siding in June, and United Way Days of Caring volunteers are set to paint its interior in September. Roofing and windows are also new, as well as interior mats that barefoot swimmers walk on.
“Nobody wants to walk on icky mats,” Staats said.
Some of the positive changes aren’t so obvious to pool users: Arnold said the new chemical-injection system has led to better results in regular water-quality tests and a walkway to the chemical storage shed was paved to make it safer.
“There are things the public wouldn’t notice at all,” she said.
While it appears financial savings might pay off the investments, at least over time, it’s not clear whether the changes have boosted or will affect pool attendance. But there is some evidence they have, and officials are optimistic they will.
For one thing, MST membership grew substantially this year, from around 40 in 2016 to more than 60 this summer — each swimmer buys a pool pass. Arnold said both a more harmonious leadership team and the pool upgrades are factors in a happy season for MST.
“The summer swim team had its own issues internally. They had a hard time keeping their numbers up and getting that parental volunteer core they needed,” Arnold said. “This year we’ve had great improvements in the pool that are starting to manifest where people can start to notice it, and the swim team has had one of the most successful years they’ve had in about 10 years.”
MST Coach Colleen Rueppel, in her second summer with the team, is confident the pool changes will help attract more visitors.
“The appearance of the pool is a lot better than it was,” Rueppel said. “And I think the warmer temperatures of the water help attract more people to the pool.”
Especially after the cold and wet June depressed attendance, Arnold said town officials are concerned about pool attendance, which is a key to limiting the cost of pool operation to taxpayers.
“The Parks and Rec committee met (Aug. 1), and the full committee is really committed to getting the revenue for the pool up and getting the word out about how nice the pool is to the community,” Arnold said. “That was a major topic. It’s a timely topic. Everybody is very invested in showing off our pool and increasing our ratio of revenue to expenditures.”
Staats, at least, believes having an attractive pool is a goal worth pursuing because swimming is an “under-appreciated” sport and one that is vital for personal safety as well as a worthwhile lifetime activity — and also simply because the town should take good care of its property.
“We host people. We want to be proud of our facility,” Staats said “It’s really encouraging to see how Terri is not only in agreement with that, but to take a lead in this, to say this is a real asset.”

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