They arrived early and stayed late.

A motley crew, holding flippers, kick boards and towels, plunged into the pool Saturday morning, minutes after a city employee opened it for them.

They were eager to take advantage of the Forest Park Pool in West Fort Worth for what may be the last time. 

There was not a skyscraper in sight. They were surrounded by trees. Sometimes, if they paused in between swimming laps, they could hear birds squawking, monkeys howling and in years past,  lions roaring at the nearby Fort Worth Zoo.

They say these are just a few of the things that make this place special.

Above all, they know it as one the only 50-meter swimming pools in Fort Worth. Five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Dana Vollmer trained at Forest Park Pool.

But Warren G. Harding was president when the Forest Park Pool opened in 1922. That summer, he addressed the nation for the first time on radio. TVs had not yet been invented.  

Everyone seems to agree the pool’s age requires it be replaced. The issue is how to do it. City staff think research recommends the pool be smaller and shallower. They’ve included it as one of the projects in a proposed 2022 bond package. But some residents think changing the pool’s configuration jeopardizes public health and safety.

Other city of Fort Worth-owned aquatic facilities

Forest Park Pool is not the only pool project in the city of Fort Worth’s proposed 2022 bond package. There is also a $7 million enhanced neighborhood family aquatic center planned for Council District 5. It will be located next to a community center in Stop Six, which is also included in the bond package. Here are the aquatic facilities that currently exist:

  • Marine Park Aquatic Center, 303 N.W. 20th St.
  • Sycamore Spray Ground, 2525 E. Rosedale St.
  • Neighborhood Family Aquatic Center at McDonald Southeast YMCA, 2701 Moresby St.

“I am embarrassed, and I will try to fight this and try to get as much exposure as I can to let people know what’s happening,” said Gigi Goesling, a competitive open water swimmer who trained at the pool this summer for a race in Bermuda.

Scott Penn with the parks and recreation department questioned whether it was the city’s job to provide Olympic-size swimming pools or whether that should fall to the institutions who put on those competitions.

“But we understand that, we sympathize that the only other one I believe in town is the Wilkerson-Greines pool that Fort Worth ISD operates in southeast Fort Worth,” he said.

History of renovations, city’s plan

Replacing Forest Park Pool is a $7.5 million project included in a $500 million proposed bond package that will go before voters in May 2022.

Forest Park Pool has been renovated three times. The first time, in 1967, gave the pool its current shape and provided a bathhouse, new piping and filtration system. It also concealed the bathhouse,  pool shell, pumps and all piping under pool decking, now more than 50 years old, said Karen Stuhmer, communications and volunteer coordinator for the parks and recreation department.

The next renovation in 1991 consisted of a zero depth entry, PVC liner (due to significant water loss issues from a compromised shell), vacuum sand filtration system, and stainless steel rollout gutters.

In 2007, the city audited its pools and learned that it would cost $3 million just to bring Forest Park Pool up to today’s requirements.

In 2012, the Radler Foundation helped the city pay to replace the pool liner; make modifications to the zero depth entry; add umbrellas, tables and a slide; and make the bathhouse American Disability Act accessible.

“All pool pump systems, chemical feed systems and filtration systems were left as-is,” Stuhmer said, pointing out that last year, City Council authorized the sale of $900,000 in tax notes to design Forest Park Pool’s replacement.

“All that to say, the repairs in 2012 were just a maintenance band aid,” she said.

What’s proposed in the 2022 bond program for Forest Park Pool is something called an “enhanced neighborhood family aquatic center.” The engineering firm Kimley-Horn Associates Inc. suggested the city phase in these centers when it consulted on the city’s 2012 aquatic master plan. That 2007 audit said it would cost $67 million to redo the city’s pools. The 2012 plan gave the city a way to redo the pools for less money and in less time, said Penn, who is district superintendent over the trades, infrastructure and maintenance section of the planning and resource management division of the parks and recreation department. 

“We have to make sure that we’re providing for all the citizens of the city of Fort Worth, and I think it does that well,” he said of the 2012 plan. “The consultant has told us that that is where aquatics is trending and that’s what the norm is, I guess, is to try and cater to all of them with the integrated play structures, the zero beach entries and still incorporating some lap lanes for learning to swim and drowning prevention and the other programming elements that we do.”

The Marine Park Pool in Northwest Fort Worth is already one of these centers and Forest Park Pool would look similar to it if the bond passes as is. It would have a 3,875-square-foot leisure pool and a 3,000-square-foot lap pool. The lap pool would be four, 25-yard lanes rather than the 8, 50-meter (equivalent to 55 yards) lanes there currently, Stuhmer said.

The pool would also be no more than 4 feet deep, Penn said.

Right now, Forest Park’s lap pool is a little more than 5 feet deep, and its diving pool reaches 12 feet.

What some users say

Team Ridglea Masters, TCU Swimming and Diving, and Sigma Swimming rent Forest Park Pool during non-operating hours for $80 per hour.

Team Ridglea Masters, the team there Saturday morning, also rents the pool for an hour Monday through Thursday.

Head Coach Chuck Burr first swam at the Forest Park Pool after moving from New York City to Fort Worth when he was 12. Steve Wood, an orthodontist in Weatherford, convinced Burr to start the team as an adult, he said. Wood would have competed at the Olympics in 1980 had the U.S. not boycotted the Moscow games because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. But most of the team’s about 100 members aren’t competitive swimmers. They just enjoy exercising and socializing while doing it.

Forest Park’s downsizing would mean at best, the team’s practices there would be more congested because they’d have to fit more swimmers into the shorter lanes, Burr said. At worst, the team’s membership could decrease by 10%.

The team isn’t able to pay more to keep the pool afloat financially because they rent out other pools in North Texas, some that cost half of what Forest Park charges, and member dues barely cover it.

“There are many months, over the last 20 years, many many many many many months, my pool service has sponsored the swimming team and they’ve paid the difference,” Burr said.

The city’s pools, even with all their revenue streams, are still subsidized, Stuhmer with the parks and recreation department said.

Team Ridglea Masters Coach Chuck Burr

Burr owns Aloha Pool Service. Now 65, that plus a stint as a Benbrook City Councilman in the 90s, allows him to put sentiment aside.

“It’s frustrating that swimming is my passion, it’s a lot of people’s passions here in Fort Worth, but taking this Forest Park Pool away, I can understand it. They’re proposing to build a small splash pad, which is a lot less expensive and a lot less maintenance,” he said.

But not all of Burr’s team members can let go of Forest Park Pool so easily. 

The city is losing business because it already has so few pools and it has opportunities to retain some of that business if it just better managed what currently exists, said Goesling, the open-water swimmer.

In April, Goesling competed in a race that had her swimming in the cold waters of several lakes in Arizona. To get acclimated to the cold water, a firefighter friend allowed her to use an unheated pool the city built for firefighters. That pool isn’t busy, so the city could open it up to the public, as well as make the Forest Park Pool heated so it could be used year round, she said.

“I pay taxes, and I don’t have a pool to train in. If you’re going to take away a pool, give me a solution,” Goesling said.

The Forest Park Pool also draws between 200 and 250 students every summer to the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition’s free water safety course, more than any other pool where it offers the course. 

“The city doesn’t charge us to use Forest Park Pool nor the Marine Park Pool and runs background checks on all of our volunteers, so we remain deeply grateful and in no way would want to harm that relationship. However, the loss of Forest Park Pool will affect our ability to serve a marginalized community,” said Pam Cannell, who serves on the board of the nonprofit.

What’s proposed is not deep enough to teach how to tread water, especially for adults, she said. 

Reducing how many people the pool can accommodate may also lead to loss of life.

“The more people go to open water, Trinity River or Benbrook Lake, because they can’t afford to go to a private pool, the more we’re going to lose people,” Cannell said.

She could recite some grim statistics that seem to back her statement, too. 

Fifty-five children fatally drowned in Texas so far this year, she said.

Pansy Shih uses a kick board at a Team Ridglea Masters swim practice at Forest Park Pool. (Jessica Priest | Fort Worth Report)

Next steps

The city’s plan for Forest Park Pool is somewhat fluid. The next open house where residents can ask questions and share their thoughts about the 2022 bond program is from 6-8 p.m. Thursday at Doxology Church, 4805 Arborlawn Drive.

Penn, with the parks and recreation department, said he hopes people will realize that increasing the surface area of the pool increases the size of the pumps, filters and bathhouses the city will need to install.

“I don’t think people are thinking about the additional cost of upsizing those lap lanes, but I do believe we’re going to ask the consultant to consider those upcharges,” he said.

Goesling, meanwhile, is strategizing ways to get the money to keep the pool at its current size. That could mean reaching out to another foundation or holding fundraisers. She also wonders whether getting a historical designation for the pool could qualify it for grants.

“There’s got to be something we’ve not come across because I think it could be a huge plus for us. I think it has all the potential to be a jewel for Fort Worth if they do it right,” she said. 

This story was updated on Wednesday to correct the first name of the president in 1922.

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest is Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter. She was previously on USA TODAY's regional investigative team. After Jessica reported that a Midland County prosecutor worked...

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