17 April 2023

Splash or splash through: are more waterparks the answer for Canberra's sinking pools?

| James Coleman
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Manuka Pool on its 90th birthday, with a photo taken in 1943 or 1944

Manuka Pool on its 90th birthday, with a photo taken in 1943 or 1944. Photo: Virginia Rigney.

John Taverner, or ‘Tav’, might have been out of the game for 10 years, but he knows a thing or two about Canberra’s swimming pools.

He managed Manuka Pool in Griffith for 32 years, and before that, was an apprentice under his father Owen, who started there as a lifeguard in 1947 before taking over the business nine years later.

It’s such a legacy, then Deputy Chief Minister Andrew Barr announced in 2012 the pool’s new café would be named ‘Tav’s’ in the family’s honour.

So surely Tav can shed some light on why so many of Canberra’s pools seem to be drowning.

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The longest-running saga was the Gungahlin Leisure Centre, where leaks were discovered in 2020 and forced the six-year-old 50 and 25-metre pools to close for one summer and then another for repairs. The total cost amounted to $4.63 million (three times the initial estimate).

Further south, the Phillip Pool and Ice-Skating Centre has been closed for three summers in a row due to maintenance issues. In January this year, Canberra developer Geocon bought the site and the facility is expected to remain closed until late 2023.

Then in March, tender documents were published on the ACT Tenders website for the Civic, Stromlo, Lakeside Leisure (Tuggeranong) and Gungahlin pools. These are all run by The Y NSW, with contracts for Gungahlin, Civic and Tuggeranong due to expire on 30 June and Stromlo in June 2026.

The Y later confirmed it and the government had “mutually agreed to end the current contracts”.

Caroline Luke-Evered, Manuka Pool

Manuka Pool – Canberra’s first pool – opened 26 January 1931. Photo: Michael Weaver.

At the same time, Chris Graham and Shay Kennedy from Dickson Pool announced they wanted out in June, a year before their contract was due to expire.

This leaves the ACT Government with five pool managers to find by the end of the year so the pools can open for summer 2023/24. The open tender closed last week on 13 April.

“It’s devastating,” Tav says.

“Pools are an essential part of the community … where people can socialise as well as get fit. The time I spent down at the pool, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Looking after people was a joy.”

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In a way, Tav fell into the pool. He and his wife were on the way back to their Melbourne home from a holiday in Egypt when they decided to stop past Canberra and say hello to his parents.

“Dad asked if I wouldn’t mind giving him a hand over the summer,” he says.

“That was 1980; I retired in 2012.”

It might not have featured in his initial grand career plan, but Tav “fell in love with Canberra and the pool”. But it wasn’t always a waterbed of roses.

“It’s never been a very profitable business,” he says.

“You have to have a great summer and crowds every day to make a lot of profit.”

man standing outside Manuka Pool

Bryan Pasfield has managed Manuka Pool since 2012. Photo: Michael Weaver.

During a heat wave, Manuka Pool could see anywhere from 800 to 1000 people over a weekend, the Canberra Olympic Pool in the city about the same and Dickson “probably twice that”.

“But it’s all based around the weather. You have regulars from the start to the end of the season, but if you don’t have a good summer, the numbers aren’t there.”

Tav blames a few things for ruining the past few summers, starting with poor air quality during the 2019/20 bushfires – important if your pool is outdoors. Then there was COVID, which not only shuttered the pools for months but also hampered visitor numbers with social-distancing restrictions when they were able to open.

“There have been a lot of other challenges – insurance premiums have gone up, running costs have gone up. There’s also a lot of maintenance on these pools.”

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Indeed, when Tav left Manuka Pool in 2012, it was to a happy retirement.

“I was exhausted, to tell you the truth,” he says, citing 100 hours a week of work catching up with him.

“The biggest challenge is keeping everyone happy. There are always incidents, and all the maintenance on the pool was manual … that goes for keeping the water quality up to scratch.”

Manuka Pool may have had a multi-million-dollar refurbishment since Tav’s days – enough to keep it going for another 80 years – but if Canberra’s pools are to survive, he reckons there needs to be more investment.

Queanbeyan pool

Canberra needs more waterparks like the one at the Queanbeyan Aquatic Centre. Photo: VisitNSW.

“The pool they’ve got is 30 metres and it’s just not big enough to cater for families or people who want to swim laps. Two pools down there would change that.”

Tav also says kid-friendly features like the waterpark at the Queanbeyan Aquatic Centre (with its giant tipping bucket) can ensure the appeal of the pool lasts beyond those really warm days.

“You’re trying to get people fit and healthy while also trying to get them to stay.”

As for demand, he sees no problem there.

“When the weather is hot, you’ve got no idea.”

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I would love some nore leisure pools around. Just a comfortable hot tub, and a sauna for the shoulder and winter seasons. It’s comfortable after doing a few laps. Ideally a bar selling cabs of beer to consume qhile in the hot tub

What were once council built and funded ‘facilities’ have over time become privatised and user pays. Facilities that helped kids and adults learn to swim. Facilities that promoted a healthy lifestyle. Facilities that provided entertainment for young and old. Facilities that benefitted everyone in the area whether they used them or not. Swimming pools were public goods. Rates money spent on the wellbeing of citizens from the cradle to the grave. While libraries remained free to nurture the mind. And walk in clinics are free to salve the body. I believe swimming pools should be free to provide the services and be the invaluable outlet they’ve always been. The government should operate them. Our rates should be used to keep them operating. Rates money well spent.

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