If Texas' major cities were ranked by the availability of public pools, Fort Worth would be dead last.
The city has just two public pools for its more than 870,000 residents, though it is working out deals with partners like the YMCA to increase resident access to swimming facilities. Nearby Dallas has 20 public pools. Austin has 40.
How the city ended up with such a dearth in swimming holes is a combination of history, budgets and timing.
When Terrence Butler was a kid in the 1970s and '80s, Lake Como Park Pool on Fort Worth’s west side was the place to be on hot summer days.
“There would be 50 or 60 kids here, especially on the weekend, swimming in the pool,” said Butler, who now runs a Christian elementary school in the Como neighborhood.
Butler said the pool was a big part of life in this working-class, mostly African-American neighborhood. In middle school, he still couldn’t swim, so he’d stay in the shallow end.
“There were things like chicken fights, splashing water,” Butler reminisced. “There were classmates, people from the community, and it was just a fun, safe place to be.”
Now, though, the pool is gone, filled in and covered over by a grassy park field with few signs the summer oasis ever existed: a street light that now sits awkwardly in the middle of the grass, a patch of bricks commemorate businesses and community members who contributed to a renovation in the mid-90s. In the sidewalk, the outline of a kiddie pool filled in with cement is easily identifiable.
“You can still see where it said ‘No Diving’ on the side,” Butler said, pointing to fading paint.
Butler’s Rivertree Academy has about 80 students, mostly from low-income families and most coming from Como. The nearest public pool is five miles away — not a big deal if you’ve got a car but tougher if you’re a kid with bike or a bus pass.
With the brutal summer heat and without a pool nearby to cool off, Butler worries his students spent too much of their long vacation inside the house, playing video games and being sedentary. He thinks they’re missing out on the social, athletic and life skills he learned at the neighborhood pool.
“I just think it’s very important for our kids to learn how to swim and to overcome some of the fears that they have of water,” he said. “And without a pool in close proximity, I don’t know if that can or will happen.”
Lake Como Park Pool was built in 1957, and closed when budget and maintenance issues forced the city to shut down all seven of its aging pools in 2009 and 2010. Butler’s church looked into making a deal with the city to keep Lake Como Park Pool open, but couldn’t find a way to come up with the $100,000 worth of maintenance it needed.
“Swimming pools, public swimming pools, they’re a pretty expensive public physical investment,” said Fort Worth Parks Director Richard Zavala.
That’s part of the reason the city historically put parks money into other amenities like trails, golf courses and community centers. The city can build 10 baseball fields for the cost of one pool, Zavala said.
Over time, city residents haven’t clamored for more pools, Zavala said, so they simply weren’t built. The oldest pool the city was operating was built in the 1920s, and the cost of maintaining antiquated pools became untenable. Fort Worth built its last brand-new public pool in 1960. The city built two that year.
“Dwight Eisenhower was still in the White House. John Kennedy hadn’t been elected yet. And those were our newest pools in the system,” Zavala said.
In the mid-2000s, though, the city was feeling flush. Money from natural gas development in the Barnett Shale was pouring in. So, Fort Worth came up with a bold new $66 million aquatics plan. The city would tear down the old, outdated pools and build at least nine public pools to serve Fort Worth. But the aquatics master plan was finalized in January of 2008, just as the national economy began to sputter out.
“The recession came, the [Barnett Shale gas] play played out,” Zavala recalled, “and so there was a request to …see what we could do to try to streamline [the aquatics master plan], to make it more realistic, and more achievable.”
The city spent millions rehabbing and reopening two of its pools in 2012 and 2013, and has demolished the rest. The revised master plan calls for at least three new ones to be built, but so far, none have.
Instead, the city’s taken another tack: focusing on partnerships, and has put money toward new pools the YMCA will build and operate.
One of the partnership pools is open, which offers discounted membership rates to city residents. Another is being built and is slated to open before next summer, which will offer day rates for residents. A third deal in the works will build an $18 million aquatic facility with money from the city of Fort Worth, the Eagle Mountain-Saginaw school district and the YMCA.
“You get a better deal when you shake hands and you can work something out with another institution because generally, they bring something else to the table that you wouldn’t be able to do by yourself,” Zavala said.
But even with discounted rates, James Fike, who runs the Fort Worth Swim School and leads the Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition, worries the partnerships won’t help the city’s least privileged kids.
“The YMCA is a good not-so-expensive option, but it is more expensive than a city pool would be,” he said.
Tarrant County leads the state in child deaths from drownings this year. There are a lot of factors that contribute to that, Fike says. He thinks one factor is that not enough kids in the city are getting a chance to learn life-saving swimming skills.
“If you don’t have access to a pool, then the chances you have of getting the skills you need are that much less,” he said.
Fort Worth does offer discounted swimming lessons, and a thousand kids have taken them this year.
“If I had it my way, I would require that every child by the age of kindergarten knew how to swim,” said the city’s Richard Zavala. But economically, he says, the city doesn’t have the resources to take that on.
Fort Worth still plans to build more pools, including one on the west side for the communities that Lake Como Park Pool used to serve, either through partnerships or on its own. But so far, the city hasn’t put money into the budget to pay for them.
Zavala said his department takes a look at all of their master plans — including the aquatics master plan — when it comes time to make a proposal for a bond package. But pools are competing with every other need within the parks department and other city services.
Back in Como, where the old Lake Como Park Pool used to be, Terrence Butler said he’s still waiting.
“My hope is that the city is coming up with a great plan so our citizens in this community on the West Side on Lake Como will have a place to swim and learn to swim for fun and to keep them out of danger,” he said.