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An El Segundo-based swim team and a water polo club with some eight El Segundo High School water polo team players in it will receive priority scheduling at the new El Segundo Aquatics Center.

On a 4-0 vote (Council member Chris Pimentel recused himself) at its regular meeting Tuesday night, the El Segundo City Council elected to go with meeting the needs of city residents first, selecting Alpha Aquatics and South Bay United Water Polo Club (SBU) as the two entities that will be given public scheduling priority at the brand new Aquatics Center at 2240 East Grand Avenue. Alpha will be given peak hours and SBU will get off-peak hours, after athletics team use by Wiseburn and El Segundo high schools, which have the highest priority and will use the pool immediately after school concludes each day, roughly from 2-6 p.m.

Tuesday night, Alpha and SBU beat out Beach Cities Swimming and Trojan Water Polo Club and other applicants for priority use. However, Beach Cities and Trojan are welcome to fill the hours that remain open after Alpha and SBU schedule their use. Beach Cities and Trojan both serve the South Bay and include El Segundo participants.

To fully understand the multi-pronged pool usage issue, many histories collide. El Segundo’s lack of a reliable pool facility (its current pool was built in 1941 and frequently has to close for repairs), the growth of area swim teams and water polo clubs increasing the demand for a limited supply of area pool facilities, the community partnerships that created and funded the new Aquatics Center, and fiscal and physical management of the facility and its programming schedule.

Financially, the Aquatics Center is the result of community partnerships and fundraising. Main players include Wiseburn Unified School District, the City of El Segundo, Da Vinci Schools, the non-profit South Bay Sports, Health and Recreation (SBSHR) headed by Continental Development’s Richard Lundquist, El Segundo residents and community members, El Segundo Unified School District, and the Wiseburn community. Wiseburn Unified donated $6 million, SBSHR raised and donated some $4 million, and the City of El Segundo put in $1.8 million, approximately. In addition, former L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe secured a $250,000 contribution from the County, the Chevron El Segundo Refinery contributed $100,000, and Continental Development Corporation contributed $2 million.

A joint-use agreement between the City of El Segundo and the Wiseburn Unified School District stipulates that the City of El Segundo, Department of Recreation and Parks will maintain the pool and run the aquatics programs.

Tuesday night, the City Council agenda included two specific items for the pool: approval of discounted rates for specific user group categories and selecting initial primary users of the pool for one year.

While the new proposed discounted rates did elicit public comment, the hotter topic was which youth groups would be named as priority users.

As speaker after speaker moved forward to the microphone to address Council, a diversity of opinions were delivered.

Several speakers said they felt priority should be given to Alpha because more than 50 percent of its members live in El Segundo and its coaches are El Segundo natives who have come through past El Segundo aquatics programs and still reside in the city or have community ties. They also noted that other cities like Culver City give priority to resident non-profit groups, followed by resident profit organizations. Under that criteria, Alpha is a resident non-profit, they said.

However, some speakers saw the issue differently. One El Segundo resident, whose children swim for Beach Cities, said, “There are those who would tell you that Beach Cities is not an El Segundo team. But as you can see here by the representation tonight, from other El Segundo residents and parents, that is not the case. We are an El Segundo team, we’re a Manhattan Beach team, we’re a Redondo and Hermosa Beach Beach team. We are a South Bay team just as this new pool facility is a South Bay facility.

“The hard work has been done and our city now has a world-class swim venue,” he continued, “but it does not belong exclusively to El Segundo, nor should it. This process has been a courtship but it is by no means a monogamy. I certainly hope, and other members of my team hope, that there is room for both teams to share the space. And let us not lose sight, when we talk about swim teams, we’re talking about children. We’re talking young men and women who have aspirations beyond the next practice or the next swim meet.” His words were cut short due to the one-minute speaking time limit. His last words were, “These are young people with sights set on a college career.”

In addition to adults speaking publicly to Council, young swimmers and youth water polo players also took the to mic to express their opinions.

El Segundo High School Coach Dave Williamson said, “I would just hope that, I’m pretty unbiased with all the clubs that have spoken here tonight, that have been represented here tonight. I would just ask that any club that you choose, you guys would stress to them that we would like them to really support the El Segundo aquatics and feeding into our schools and our local programs here regardless of what their policies already are. We hope that that would be their policy moving forward.

“And being unbiased, just to give you facts, most of our boys do play for South Bay United already. And our girls play for about five different clubs. It would be great if no matter what club gets there, I hope they would have no reason to go an hour away to play club. I would hope they could play here and play more often.”

Lee Davis, 56-year El Segundo resident and aquatics supporter for 50 years, rallied for Council to make a “smart decision so that we have a strong ESWAC, El Segundo Wiseburn Aquatics Center.” He said finances have been front and center in the 10-year development of the Aquatics Center and that he didn’t want to see El Segundo lose the pool in five years because they could no longer afford to oversee it. The joint-use agreement will be up for review by a new El Segundo City Council at that time and a new arrangement could be made for pool oversight. He encouraged sound fiscal management of the Aquatics Center.

In that vein, before recusing himself, Pimentel told the audience, “I would just say, and this will be my small piece here, is that as we look to delineate between recreation facilities, revenue-generating facilities, and services to the public, it’s important to note that every man, woman, and child in El Segundo owes $11,000 in unfunded pension liability. So money does not grow on trees. Every single person here has $11,000 in excess of what they’re currently putting on their property tax docket, their sales tax docket, their gas tax, every other item on that, there’s $11,000 additionally handing out there for every man, woman, and child. So it’s worth thinking when we talk about financial decisions, what that means to everybody in here.”

Replied Mayor Drew Boyles, “Thanks, Chris. Sobering note on such an optimistic, upbeat topic. But it is true. And I will echo it by saying next year is the first year we’re faced with a major structural deficit in a long time.”

After public comment and before Pimentel left the official council discussion, David King from the City Attorney’s Office said the councilman recused himself because he has children who swim and participate in the programs being discussed, though King noted the recusal was not legally necessary. Mayor Boyles, who acknowledged his kids swim for Alpha Aquatics, opted not to recuse himself.

As she began her official presentation to Council, El Segundo Director of Recreation and Parks Meredith Petit said, “We have a very, what Greg (Carpenter, city manager) and I have been calling a ‘good problem’ on our hands in that we have a lot of interested groups, a lot of very reputable, really outstanding groups that are interested in using the facility, and that we have a facility that is now up and running.” She noted that Wiseburn and El Segundo high school athletes are now using the pool, which opened to them a few weeks ago.

Petit explained that a Request For Proposals (RFP) had been issued by the city to help determine what community swimming and water polo clubs would be given priority. Under the criteria in the RFP, Beach Cities’ proposed use would bring in roughly $160,000 in revenue annually, and Alpha, which proposed using a lower rate than Beach Cities, would bring in some $94,000 converted to $130,000 if using the same rate as Beach Cities, according to Petit. Alpha is smaller than Beach Cities, hence the dollar difference. Petit noted that all applicants have goals to “get in the city and build their programs,” explaining that pool location often influences what team or club someone joins.

She said the pool would require about $1 million annually for operation and showed usage calculations that would put the city at about a $100,000 operational loss in its first year with growing revenue predicted in the following years.

Speaking before Petit’s presentation, Council member Dr. Don Brann provided some history of the city’s aquatics programs and The Plunge, which was world class in 1941, saying he wants the city and its aquatics programs to once again soar to national and international heights and that he’s proud to have a world-class facility again within the city’s borders.

Brann talked about cobbling The Plunge together to keep it functional ever since he first joined City Council in 2008, that those attempts had been marginally successful, and how the city arrived at the juncture it presently is with running the new Aquatics Center.

“It’s (the new Aquatics Center) a tremendous accomplishment,” he said, noting the new pool was his suggestion, years ago, as a way to solve an issue between the city and the Wiseburn School District. He also noted the project has taken time, effort, and planning.

Saying The Plunge no longer meets the needs of El Segundo residents, he said he would be looking to the local families when it comes to use of the new pool. “This is where they can go now. Now this is in the ground, this is who I want to use it.”

The three remaining Council members voted in agreement with him.

The Aquatics Center has an unusual pedigree.

From a historical perspective, it reflects community-based efforts to resurrect El Segundo’s notable swimming and water polo history, with dozens of Olympic and nationally ranked swimmers being produced in the 1940s through 1960s at aquatics programs at the El Segundo Plunge (now called Urho Saari Swim Stadium in honor of the El Segundo coach many of whose athletes made it to the Olympics).

Given its age, The Plunge, the city’s longtime and only pool (it was built in 1940 by the Work Project Administration) until now, has become an ailing facility that frequently cannot be used due to physical issues that close it, rendering El Segundo residents without a public pool in the city.

The new pool is also one of only a few Olympic-sized pools in the South Bay, it offers 500 stadium seats for watching the action, a Jumbotron and stadium quality lighting, lighting and sound systems, and a four-lane, 25-yard short course pool. It is also adjacent Wiseburn High School’s 4,800-square-foot gym but has separate public access points for the pool.

RELATED STORY: Help Bring a New World-Class Aquatics Center to the South Bay!

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Liz Spear is a South Bay native, who was born in a maternity home in Griffith Park, Los Angeles. She grew up on Avenue D in South Redondo Beach, playing sports, loving music, and getting to know the area. She is a Redondo Union Sea Hawk and Cal State Long Beach graduate. She has never wandered far from the South Bay, settling in Manhattan Beach in 1995. She has worked for the Daily Breeze newspaper, El Segundo-based Mattel, Inc., RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, and helmed several Patch sites, including Manhattan Beach Patch. She loves exercise, good food, good coffee, the beach and ocean, watching sports, traveling, hiking, and being as healthy as possible. Liz loves the El Segundo community and watching its many manifestations of growth.