A girl raises her fist in the air while standing on the ladder of the diving board at an outdoor pool on a sunny day.
Bouws Pool. Photo courtesy of the City of Holland.

Bouws Pool: A True Community Pool

By Kathleen Schenck
May 2, 2019

On May 7 voters who live within the Holland Public School boundaries will be asked to vote on a “Construction and Renovation Bond Proposal” to benefit the Holland Aquatic Center, an 86,745 square foot indoor aquatic facility next door to the hospital and run by the Holland Area Community Swimming Pool Authority (HACSPA).

Not everyone is on board.

Hollanders already pay for the multi-pool aquatic center with their property taxes. According to the Holland Sentinel, HACSPA already has a current 1 mill that is good for five years passed last May in an election that saw an 8% voter turnout. (That figure, according to the 2018 millage rates found on the City of Holland website, is actually 1.1434.) On May 7 the aquatic center hopes to add an additional 1.25 mill, bringing its total to 2.39 mill.

According to the aquatic center website, a homeowner whose house is valued at $150,000 would pay $93.75 a year more in property taxes if the May 7 mill passes. Add that to what the homeowner already pays each year for the aquatic center, and that’s $179.51 the homeowner pays towards one building: the Holland Aquatic Center.

To put this in perspective, that same homeowner pays $110.63 for the entire Herrick District Library system.

In response to a Holland Sentinel article on the millage, commenter Emma Johnson calls into question the fact that the vote takes place during the city’s busiest time of year: Tulip Fest. “With the predictable low voter turnout during Tulip Time, I guess the Aquatic Center Authority considers the vote just a formality!? VOTE MAY 7 2019. ABSENTEE BALLOTS AVAILABLE AT THE CITY CLERK’S OFFICE ON RIVER OR ON THE SECRETARY OF STATE WEBSITE.”

Another criticism of the millage is the board did not seek public opinion or discussion before placing it on the May ballot, adding that voters just passed a millage one year ago. It would be helpful to have as much transparency as possible to make an informed decision: How much are voters currently paying, how much will the aquatics center want from voters in the future, and how soon? The millage passed last May runs out in five years. Will voters be asked during Tulip Time 2023 to fund the aquatic center some more?

From the Holland Aquatic Center website: “The 1.25 mill proposal is for 20 years. If approved by voters, the millage will raise $26 million to invest in updating our pool’s aging facility needs and expanding our programs and services.” The aquatic center states that the millage would fund “the general aging of the community pool’s facilities (major life cycle replacements and upgrades) as well as address the pool’s three primary aquatic program needs: enhanced and expanded aquatic safety instruction, enhanced and expanded recreation and fitness, enhanced and expanded team training and competitions.”

The multi-pool facility is entirely indoors and no plans have surfaced to build an outdoor pool. (View the details of the facility here.) There are six different rates for day use. Residents pay $4.75 for a day pass, non-residents pay $8.00, with both fees depending on number in family and senior or military status.

Additional criticism against the proposed millage includes whether or not a 3% increase in property taxes reflects accurately the benefit the aquatic center provides property owners, as well as the usual questions about mismanagement and lack of oversight. From the aquatic center’s website: “(The HACSPA) is an independent municipal entity and its borders are identical to the Holland Public School District. The HACSPA Board is appointed by the municipalities that reside within the Holland Public School District: Holland, Holland Township, Laketown Township, and Park Township. Each municipality appoints its own representatives for a renewable term. The Board operates independently under its own authority as stipulated by the legislation which created it. The Authority is legally permitted to levy an operating millage up to 1 mill and also a millage for debt service.”

One question voters may ask is what does HACSPA pay in taxes for its 86,745 square foot property?

There are also questions about long-term sustainability, how the money has been used in the past, and why more is needed. The weight room is often quiet, as is the large competition pool during the day. Still another criticism is the aquatic center and its upgrades will largely benefit competitive swimmers, not the general public.

Enter Bouws Pool.

A 25 yard lap pool with a seperate diving well.
Bouws Pool from a birdseye view. Photo courtesy of City of Holland-City Hall Facebook page.

Bouws Pool, named after Russ Bouws of Russ’ Restaurants, is an outdoor city pool on 16th and Fairbanks on the Smallenburg Park campus. As the story goes, Russ Bouws reveled in the joy of kids swimming in his backyard pool, and wanted every child in town to have the same opportunity. In 1973 Bouws donated money for a community pool for everyone to enjoy.

At one point, Bouws Pool was run by HACSPA, but is now run by the Holland Recreation Division. Andy Kenyon, the Leslie Knope of the City of Holland (i.e. the Parks and Recreation Director), shares information about the pool via email. 

“Bouws Pool is very popular in the summertime. We generally have around 12-15,000 people that go to the pool each summer. For the last 6-8 years we have had a few very generous people/families that have donated funds to allow kids under the age of 15 to swim for free. This made it possible for kids to swim for free all summer long. We have intentionally left the price of admission super low at $.50/1.00 so it is a low cost option for people of all ages to cool down in the summer.

During the past two summers we have also collaborated with the Free Lunch Program put on by the local schools at Smallenburg Park. So, kids can grab a lunch and spend the afternoon at the pool. It’s been a great partnership.

We will also again have swimming lessons at Bouws this summer, and more information on that will become available soon.

Staff is working on a “Bouws Bus” program that will pick people up at a few dedicated locations around town (east, west, and central neighborhoods). This would get kids to the pool that might live too far away to walk, and/or have to cross some busy streets. We are looking at options now, and trying to find some funding for it. It might not work out for this summer, but staff is working hard to make it a reality.”

When asked if a millage has ever been passed for Bouws Pool, roughly the same age as the Holland Aquatic Center, Kenyon replied: “I’m not sure if a specific millage was passed for the pool, however funding has been designated to the pool from the General Fund each year to operate it. Also, during the City’s push to become more energy efficient a couple of summers ago, the mechanical systems in the pool were all replaced with state of the art equipment.”

Kenyon concludes: “The pool has generally not been to capacity (where we would have to turn people away), but definitely very busy on most warm sunny days.”

Free day at the pool with a free lunch to boot, with safe transportation to and from the pool in the works. Now that has the community in mind.

Driving by Bouws on a summer day brings joy when you spy the kids jumping off the board and splashing around in one of the last unstructured play times this generation seems to have. Every pool requires updating and funding for maintenance. For Hollanders’ dime, Bouws Pool deserves the title of a True Community Pool, and funding to match.

A boy in mid-air above diving board spreads his arms wide.
Photo courtesy of holland.org.

Disclosure: The author taught swim lessons at Holland Aquatic Center.