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‘Save our pool:’ West Asheville residents demand answers on Malvern Hills Park Pool closure

The pool house at the Malvern Hills Park Pool on Feb. 21, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
The pool house at the Malvern Hills Park Pool on Feb. 21, 2024.

The Asheville Parks and Recreation Department staff came to the elementary school cafeteria armed with posterboards, pamphlets and swag. It was supposed to be an orderly affair Wednesday night where residents could have one-on-one discussions with city officials about the fate of the Malvern Hills Park Pool.

And for about half an hour, it was.

Then the chanting began.

In front of a crowd of about 75 people, a small group of children and adults made a plea to city officials: “Save our pool!”

Children holding handmade signs at the community meeting about Malvern Hills Park Pool on Feb. 21, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
Children holding handmade signs at the community meeting about Malvern Hills Park Pool on Feb. 21, 2024.

Since being told West Asheville's public pool will not open this summer — and its future is uncertain -- local families have been incensed.

One attendee after another demanded that the officials answer questions in front of the crowd.

“We’re just looking for a little leadership from the city,” one man said, standing on a cafeteria table to be heard.

“Yes!” a woman said.

“Good luck,” another attendee chimed in, sarcastically.

For a few uncomfortable minutes, Parks and Recreation Director D. Tyrell McGirt, Mayor Esther Manheimer, City Council Member Kim Roney and Parks and Recreation staff stood silently as community members voiced their frustration.

Finally, McGirt addressed the crowd, and residents then peppered the officials with tense and pointed questions for nearly an hour, while children at the back of the room held up colorful, handmade “Save Our Pool” signs.

Asheville Parks and Recreation Director D. Tyrell McGirt, Mayor Esther Manheimer and other city officials address residents at a community meeting on Feb. 21, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
Asheville Parks and Recreation Director D. Tyrell McGirt, Mayor Esther Manheimer and other city officials address residents at a community meeting on Feb. 21, 2024.

“The pool is closed for the summer,” McGirt told the crowd in response to the rapid-fire questions. “There have been no decisions on the future of the pool.”

The public pool is one of three serving Asheville residents. A day pass for the city pools is only $3, while a season pass is $100 for an individual and $150 for a family of four. The Malvern Hills Pool has also hosted a day camp that officials say will now relocate to other parts of the city.

Earlier this month, the city announced the Malvern Hills Park Pool will be closed this summer, citing safety issues and the cost of repairs. Contractors had told the city that it would take a minimum of $400,000 to get the pool in working shape for the summer of 2024, and that even more costly repairs would be needed in the years to come.

All of the city’s pools were assessed about eight years ago, and the Malvern Hills Park Pool was found to have “seen its life use,” with contractors advising the city “not to put more money in the current pool.” Since then, however, the city has not proposed a long-term plan for addressing the issue. The pool’s safety issues range from drainage problems to cracked fiberglass and electrical concerns.

At a city council briefing earlier this month, McGirt said the construction of a new pool would cost at least $1.5 million and that no long-term decision will be made until the city’s comprehensive plan is complete. Results from a survey conducted about the plan are expected in April.

Residents sprung into action following news of the closure, with a petition to rebuild the pool garnering 1,400 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

West Asheville residents Eli Day, Asia Heller and their 8-year-old son, Micah.
Felicia Sonmez
West Asheville residents Eli Day, Asia Heller and their 8-year-old son, Micah.

Among the disappointed community members Wednesday night were Eli Day, Asia Heller and their 8-year-old son, Micah.

“We used to go after school all the time,” Micah said of the Malvern Hills pool, where he loved doing front flips, diving in the deep end and taking swimming tests. “Hopefully it gets fixed.”

Day noted that while Asheville has two other public pools, “there is a large contingent of youth who can walk and bike to this pool, and they cannot safely get to the other pools.”

Many at the event also voiced frustration about what they said is an outsized focus by city leaders on the tourism economy – at the expense of infrastructure for local residents.

“I wish there was something this city would do that isn’t for a brewery, a hotel or an Airbnb owner,” Jason Bugg, a 46-year-old truck driver, told BPR in an interview.

As a local resident with several family members who have worked for the Parks and Recreation Department, Bugg said the community has long depended on the Malvern Hills Park Pool and that West Asheville is often overlooked by city officials.

“I’m a lifelong West Ashevillian,” he said. “My whole life, my grandpa, all of my relatives, neighbors, they would say, ‘The money from the city does not make it across the bridge to here.’ And when I see this, that’s what I’m seeing. And we shouldn’t have to bully our elected officials to get what we need.”

The Malvern Hills Park Pool in West Asheville on Feb. 21, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
The Malvern Hills Park Pool in West Asheville on Feb. 21, 2024.

Federica Collina is a 48-year-old artist from Italy who moved to West Asheville 14 years ago. She said the pool is one of the few diverse and accessible public spaces in the city.

“The Malvern Hills Pool is the pool that you see people of color,” she told the crowd. “And often, it’s 80% of the population. It’s a pool that doesn’t require a membership. It’s a pool that costs $3. And it’s a pool that’s served by a public bus.”

Parks and Recreation staff at the event told her it might cost as much as $2 million to build a new pool, she said.

“But it’s $2 million that builds a pool that lasts for the next hundred years. For a full town. That needs to happen,” she added, to applause and cheers from the crowd.

A "Save Our Pool" flyer seen outside the Malvern Hills Park Pool on Feb. 21, 2024.
Felicia Sonmez
A "Save Our Pool" flyer seen outside the Malvern Hills Park Pool on Feb. 21, 2024.

In an interview with BPR at the start of the event, McGirt acknowledged the community’s disappointment.

“It’s a special place,” he said. “And this pool means a lot to a lot of people, especially the people that live right around the community. So, we share that pain of having to make the tough decision of closing the pool for the summer. ... But we also understand where all the needs are across all of the Asheville Parks and Rec system.”

Mayor Manheimer said she and members of the city council will address the issue at their retreat this week. One possible option, she told the crowd, is a bond referendum that could be put before voters in November, similar to the $17 million package that voters approved in 2016.

“I lifeguarded at a rec park pool when I was 19 years old, and I know how many people come to pools and how important they are to our community,” Manheimer told the crowd Wednesday night. “I have three kids that if I didn’t have a pool to drive them to every summer, I would’ve gone out of my mind. So, I totally get that. We just need to put together the money, and it’s so helpful that you’re all here to help the city understand that this has to be a priority.”

Felicia Sonmez is a reporter covering growth and development for Blue Ridge Public Radio.
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