Easthampton council backs Nonotuck Park upgrades, but questions why city pool is closed again

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  • The pool at Easthampton's Nonotuck Park is closed for the 2022 season, though the adjacent spray park is open. Photographed on Friday, July 8, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The pool at Easthampton's Nonotuck Park is closed for the 2022 season, though the adjacent spray park is open. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The pool at Easthampton's Nonotuck Park is closed for the 2022 season, though the adjacent spray park is open. Photographed on Friday, July 8, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The pool at Easthampton's Nonotuck Park is closed for the 2022 season, though the adjacent spray park is open. Photographed on Friday, July 8, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 7/8/2022 6:22:00 PM

EASTHAMPTON — As the city prepares to apply for state grants to help fund a significant upgrade to Nonotuck Park, some councilors are raising questions about why the pool inside the park will remain closed for the third straight summer.

At this week’s City Council meeting, the Parks and Recreation Department presented its plans for the six-year project, which includes $1.2 million for pool upgrades in the first three years.

Council President Homar Gomez said that while he supports the initiative — and the council agreed to join other boards and commissions on a letter of support — he felt it pertinent to inform the public about some of the department’s challenges in regards to the pool, which hasn’t opened since 2019. The Parks and Recreation Department, under the direction of John Mason, announced on June 30 that the pool will remain closed for the 2022 season.

“Mr. Mason, I 100% support this, but I think the public deserves some answers from the Parks and Rec and for the last several years as to why we didn’t have life-savers for the pool, can you explain to the public one of the reasons why we’re not having it, especially when we’re investing a lot of money in it?,” Gomez asked.

Much like last year, the city continues to struggle finding lifeguards, Mason said. In the past, the department has staffed between six and eight lifeguards, but should have a minimum of five to maintain a ratio of 25 people to one lifeguard.

“Two years ago, we had zero applicants. This year we had three. We scheduled interviews, and rescheduled one, and not one showed up,” Mason said.

The American Lifeguard Association has reported that there’s a nationwide shortage of lifeguards with much of the problem being compounded by COVID-19 pandemic-related restrictions leading to cancellations of certification and recertification classes.

“When lifeguard training was shut down for two years, it put the entire industry in a hole because you’re not getting the folks for 10, 15, 20 years. You’re getting them for two,” Mason said. “If you’re not getting new and refreshed lifeguards during that span, it puts everyone in the hole. I’ve done research on this ad nauseum and a lot of it seems to be that a lifeguard, for us especially, it’s usually a two-year cycle. If we can get one for two years, that’s a pretty good retention rate. It’s not a career position.”

Area pools

Finding lifeguards has been a struggle that extends beyond Easthampton, according to Mason.

“At one point, Worcester was looking for 75 lifeguards. Springfield only opened one of their three pools. Holyoke called me to say they were in desperate need and they weren’t sure if they weren’t opening up any of their pools,” he said.

Easthampton also offered a training program for new lifeguards, which provided reimbursements for their training, Mason added.

“We’ve advertised at UMass and several local high schools trying to drum up some lifeguards … it’s definitely not for lack of effort,” he said.

Mason has discussed the pay for lifeguards, noting that state-run pools have been offering up to $26 per hour. “That’s tough for a small community to match what the state has for backing,” he said.

In Amherst, Mill River Pool opened June 18 and will remain open until Aug. 28. The opening of War Memorial Pool has been delayed due to mechanical issues, according to the town’s website.

Karla Pargas, manager of Holyoke’s Pouliot Pool, said that it was a bit challenging to maintain staffing with students involved in sports though the pool is “pretty well” staffed this season with 11 lifeguards.

“Last year was a little challenging, but this year, we’re doing pretty well,” she said.

Nonotuck Park upgrades

On June 27, Parks and Recreation hosted an open house of Nonotuck Park and presented an outline detailing the proposed multiphase upgrade over the next six years as well as potential funding sources.

According to the proposal, improvements to the park include a new pool deck surface to add interest and color to the pool, new decorative fencing, new shade structures and umbrellas within the pool fencing, and additional fencing around the splash pad to enclose the structure.

Conceptual designs provided by Chicopee-based engineering consultant BETA Group Inc. show that once the pool upgrades are completed, improvements to the overall park include play features for the two pavilions including corn hole and horseshoes, more trees, bike racks and a demonstration rain garden with an interpretive panel.

The first grant Mason hopes to secure is through the state’s Parkland Acquisitions and Renovations for Communities grants, which would fund 68% of the project cost. The deadline for that application is Thursday.

Mason also intends to apply for a federal Land and Water Conservation Fund grant, which matches up to $750,000 in grant funding and has a deadline in February.

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle and At-Large City Councilor Owen Zaret said they supported Mason’s efforts “wholeheartedly.”

“I think that a public swimming pool is absolutely something that cities have to have, and I hate to say it, but with global warming, we’re getting hotter summers, and lots of people don’t have access to cooling off stations and water recreation,” he said.

Precinct 1 Councilor James “J.P.” Kwiecinski also voiced support, but noted his concern with funding improvements to a pool that has been closed for so long.

“What’s the answer in sight for next year and the year after if we’re not able to get the ball rolling now? I’m concerned that we’re going to go ahead and vote to spend this money without hearing what the plan is for the future,” said Kwiecinski.

Mason said that it was important to note that his request was for a letter of support, not money at this point.

“I think we’re at the point whether it’s going to be put money in the pool or close it forever. It’s getting to that point one way or another. I think now is the time to make that decision,” said Mason. “I know it’s a big nugget, I saw the numbers first so I understand that completely. It’s not going to get any cheaper.”

Councilors unanimously approved signing a letter of support for the project, which is also being supported by the Commission on Disability and the Community Preservation Act Committee.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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