Opinion: Plans for a new town pool are worth a close look

March 31, 2022 Submitted by Stephanie and Chris Jones

At Town Meeting on April 30th (tentative data), Hingham citizens will be asked to vote on a sizeable tax increase to borrow $8 million to develop a new town-run “bubble-able” pool complex at the South Shore Country Club (SSCC).  While Hinghamites have missed the country club pool since it closed in 2019, approval of this proposed project is likely to give tax payers a case of buyer’s remorse. The highlights are as follows, with further details below.

  • The $8M new pool design goes to great lengths to accommodate eventual year-round use including preparing the pool area for a future “bubble” and building a $2.7M bathhouse with conference room space.
  • The town cannot afford to build this pool complex without increasing our taxes, and this would be the first of five significant tax increases coming our way for new town projects. For an $8M pool facility, the median home (valued at $703,600) is projected to see a tax increase of $46 per year for ~20yrs. The pending rebuild of Foster school will likely cost over $100M and increase our taxes by at least $350 per year. Additional increases are likely to come for the cost of other planned projects including a new safety center, the senior center expansion and the operational override. The pool complex is the only project being considered this spring. In light of these other important projects, shouldn’t we consider a more modest pool project that removes unnecessary cost to support a “bubble” and potential year-round use?
  • A “bubble” is supported with air pressure that is heated by gas.  Supporting a gas-heated recreational swim structure is not in line with Hingham’s pledge towards a net zero carbon footprint.  In addition, because the air pressure is one-directional (flowing in, to support the bubble infrastructure), bubbles are known to have poor air quality that deter many from swimming under them.  Why spend our money to prepare our pool for one?
  • If a bubble were to be constructed, the cost to run a year-round pool is high.  Year-round pools in nearby communities run at a loss of a few hundred thousand dollars each year. Funding for that potential operating expense would have to come out the town budget each year and would compete with money for our schools and other important items.
  • The estimated cost of this pool project is not realistic and is likely to rise. For instance, the proposed budget does not have a realistic cushion for overages; there is only a 4% contingency in the current plans. As a point of comparison, the cost of the maintenance shed under construction at SSCC has risen by 36% so far to $3M. The proposal does not include the cost to demolish the old pool, repurpose the existing pool area, or pay for the bubble itself so there is no clarity on the project’s total cost.

Still unsure if you want to dive into this pool? Keep reading….

What’s wrong with a bubble and why are we sinking so much cost into making it bubble “ready”?

The vote on the pool facility plan is unfortunately a “lose-lose” proposition for tax payers because the plan goes to great lengths (and at large costs) to accommodate a future “bubble” for year-round use.

A pool “bubble” is a large inflatable dome that would cover the pool and deck.  An example is pictured below.  They are supported entirely by fan generated air pressure with gas fired heat.  If SSCC were to put a bubble on the pool, it would require a continuous flow of gas for 9 months a year to heat it.  This would not be in line with Hingham’s pledge towards a net zero carbon footprint. In addition, indoor pool air quality is a known issue that can be addressed at solid structure facilities, but due to the positive pressure air flow required to support a bubbled pool, keeping good air quality for young children and seniors is challenging.

Indoor aquatics economics are challenging.  We couldn’t find a “bubbled” town pool in any nearby communities, which we think is indicative of the challenge.  However, the Percy Walker pool in Duxbury, which is indoor year-round, disclosed revenues and expenses from 2011-2017, and in 2017 operated at a $278,000 loss.  SSCC’s own work and presentation to the town in 2020 acknowledges this challenge, and the Hingham Advisory Committee drafted the 2020 warrant to fund the pool plans, stating that “there remains an open question as to a sustainable financial model for the pool outside of the summer outdoor use season.”  Seasonal summer pool economics, however, are more feasible.  The former seasonal pool at SSCC ran without generating a loss for the town, and even managed to generate a small profit.

It’s not clear that the town citizens would use a “bubbled” pool in the off-season.  There are several year-round pools nearby, including the Connell pool only a few miles down the road. Surveying done in 2017 asked citizens questions about interest in an indoor facility, which was viewed positively.  At that time, however, plans had been forming for a year-round indoor structure with a fitness center.  The current design does not include a fitness center. Rather, the indoor space outside of the locker rooms is planned to be conference rooms, which seem unlikely to benefit many people.  We think town citizens should be surveyed with questioning more specific to the presented pool facility design.  While some members of the community, such as our high school swim team families, would benefit from a year-round town pool, it’s not as clear that it would serve the population at large.  How often would you swim in a chilly pool with low air quality covered by a bubble in the winter?

To be clear, the current warrant does not ask to fund a bubble.  However, a “yay” vote would put significant town monies towards building a pool that could accommodate one, and it would also put the SSCC in a position to put a bubble on the pool complex with independent fundraising or with another town ask.

Will the cost of the pool facility construction continue to rise, as it has for other recent SSCC projects?

In October of 2021, SSCC presented a $7.3 million estimate (inclusive of a 10% contingency) to the Hingham CPC for $1M of funding.  In January of 2021, the SSCC presented a revised estimate of $8.0 million (inclusive of only 4% contingency, “to keep the costs down”).  With this low of a contingency, and the current cost environment for construction and materials, we wonder if this is going to be a much more expensive endeavor.  We note that all of these presentations are available to view on the Town of Hingham website.

If the project follows the path of the new maintenance facility to house golf maintenance equipment, we are signing up for a much bigger bill.  The maintenance facility (a garage) was initially estimated to cost $2.2 million; however, SSCC is also coming to the April Town Meeting to ask for another $800,000 to finish the project (~36% over budget).  If we miss by 36% on the pool facility, it would be another approximately $2.9 million cost to the town next year.

One additional cost we know for certain is coming is for demolishing the existing pool and any repurposing of that area, which will undoubtably be a large ask to the town in the future.  The new pool complex will be in the location of tennis courts, which will be removed.

Why not take the time to consider a more modest seasonable pool and bathhouse?

A well-done seasonal pool is undoubtedly a worthy investment for the town. But given the current design which goes to great lengths to accommodate a potential bubble in the future, we question if this is the right design to fund.  In recent presentations of the plans, we’ve learned that nearly every detail of the current design has been made with the bubble in mind, from “the size of the pool deck to the length of the bathhouse.”  There is also not enough parking to accommodate the increased swimming capacity of the new pool along with golf, restaurant and events.  SSCC has proposed that on busy days it would figure out how to shuttle people to the pool from distal parking lots.  This seems out of touch with the concept of a seasonal community pool and likely disturbing to the neighbors of the country club.

If we never put a bubble on the pool, we wasted a lot of money and don’t need a $2.7M bathhouse with conference rooms.  It will largely go unused in the summer. Nor do we need things like gas lines and a fan platform to be installed to make the pool bubble ready. If the bubble does come to be, we will spend a significant amount of money keeping it going without knowing the environmental impact and whether it will be an asset to the community.

A particularly frustrating aspect of the project is that the town will not be presented with an alternative seasonal-only design to consider.  Therefore, it’s hard to understand the cost involved in preparing the pool area for the bubble and what compromises we might be making on the design relative to a pure seasonal-only design.

Come to Town Meeting!

$8 million (plus potential overruns) is a large outlay for the town with likely large budgetary and environmental impacts in the future if a bubble were to be put on the pool.  We question the plan’s readiness and timing, especially as the town will soon be asked to commit to several more significant tax increases - $100 million-plus Foster School rebuild proposal coming this fall, and the development of the land acquired to build new police and fire facilities.  Let’s get the pool right and be good stewards of town capital across all of these projects.

Join us in pausing this plan and voting “No” on this warrant at town meeting, and in doing so, asking the country club to design their best seasonal-only pool facility with more transparency and lower costs.

Chris and Stephanie Jones
On behalf of a group of concerned citizens

6 thoughts on “Opinion: Plans for a new town pool are worth a close look”

  1. Hingham has a history of designing a complete project and ‘value engineering it’ to save money at the time of a Town Meeting vote. Then, 5-10 years later we wish we would have done it right the first time. For example, the childrens area of the library or the high school tennis courts that we will vote to resurface at this year’s Town Meeting. It makes perfect sense to install the appropriate infrastructure to ‘bubble’ a pool in the future. The DCR Connell pool has been at risk of operating in the past due to repairs to the infrastructure, state budgets and Weymouth budgets. Why rely on someone else? Hingham can provide the community with year round fun, fitness, recreation and find a way to do it economically and energy-efficiently. Hingham Recreation and the Country Club have a self-sustaining operations and I am sure they can figure out how to make the pool operate well.

  2. I’m in favor of a pool but not as proposed. Why can’t we consider less “super sized” options? The points address here are well made. As with all things we vote on as citizens, we have to dig deep into the details.

  3. I think a year round pool would be an amazing asset to the town. Having this facility would mean that people wouldn’t have to drive to Weymouth, Scituate, Norwell, Braintree and other towns to have swim lessons, do PT, or swim laps. This pool would serve every age in our town from baby through seniors all year round! The only other all year town facility that has the capacity to do that is the Rec Center, but it’s quite dated and dingy.

    I agree with the comments above that those involved will be able to create programming and attract others to rent/use the space brining in additional income. Currently Sailfish swim team uses the Scituate Racket club’s pool which often has heater issues. They also have to rent pool space (often in Duxbury) for meets bc Scituate isn’t big enough for them. Maybe they would want to use this new pool instead. Perhaps a new club swim team will start up or a new Masters swimming team, or a triathlon training team taht would love to find its home in Hingham. Maybe some of the private schools in the area would rent pool space for their own swimming programs adding even more to the revenue of this year long facility.

    As a lifelong swimmer, I personally don’t like bubbles for some of the reasons you have described. Perhaps the argument that should be made isn’t against a year round pool but for an altered plan FOR a year round pool as some good points were brought up in this opinion piece. I am pretty certain the town can’t afford an indoor pool and an outdoor pool or an indoor pool with a retractable roof so a bubble may be the best option (both would be better than a bubble IMO). One could also make the argument that it actually seems silly to have just an outdoor pool when we have a such a short outside swimming season.

  4. This is Christine Smith – Chair of the Country Club Management Committee (CCMC) and sponsor of the Town Pool Warrant Article. Appreciate everyone’s comments and views on this project that we’ve been reviewing since 2016 and look forward to in person discussion at Town Meeting on April 30 at the Hingham High football stadium, followed by a Ballot Vote on May 14. Please note that your Select Board, Advisory Committee and CCMC all voted unanimously to support this project which was designed in conjunction with $500k of CPC dollars approved by Town Meeting in 2020 and has included feedback from net zero committee members. For more information about the Town Pool and the South Shore Country Club, I encourage you to visit the Friends of the SSCC website : https://www.friendsofsscc.org/pool

  5. Hingham Net Zero Recommends Electric Alternative to Natural Gas for the Pool Bubble

    Over the last year, a Hingham Net Zero member has attended many of the country club project meetings and was successful in guiding the CCMC away from the use of natural gas for the new golf maintenance building. Early this year, when he learned of the planned use of gas for the pool bubble, he initially muted his disagreement and focused instead on researching alternatives to gas, wanting to offer solutions rather than prohibitions. Unfortunately, the leadership of the pool project interpreted this as tacit agreement, sincerely believing that HNZ had come to accept the planned use of natural gas for the bubble. When questioned on the pool project’s carbon footprint during the 2/8/2022 Advisory Committee review, the project’s architect, Chris Rotti, made representations in good faith to that effect. This disconnect, while understandable, has created a false impression that we need to correct.

    In keeping with the Town’s goal of net zero emissions by 2040, HNZ cannot endorse the use of fossil fuel for a recreational municipal facility, however desirable a year-round pool may be to many of us. A commitment to net zero carbon-emissions principles requires our collective commitment not to build new fossil fuel infrastructure, especially if, as in this case, there are alternatives to natural gas that would make the project all-electric, and therefore net-zero-ready. Several months ago, when Hingham Net Zero members were initially asked for input, “no new fossil-fuel infrastructure” was the first response we made.

    The good news is that HNZ members have done research that indicates that, contrary to previous perceptions, natural gas is in fact not essential to making the bubble option viable; electric heat pumps can be used. An all-electric project will meet the town’s zero carbon emissions goal when HMLP achieves its stated goal of a 100% carbon emissions-free power supply. In contrast, a structure fueled by gas would never reach net zero carbon emissions.

    We have recently raised this issue with project leader Christine Smith, who has agreed to revisit this design direction with us once architect Chris Rotti has had a chance to do further research. Meanwhile, HNZ has found a New York firm, Air Structures American Technology Inc. (A.S.A.T.I), whose management assured us in a recent phone call that his firm could supply a bubble operable with electric heat pumps. This firm does projects all over the world and is eager to bid on the Hingham bubble, if that part of the project is activated. We look forward to discussing this with Christine and Chris and, with a non-fossil fuel solution readily at hand, anticipate that the project leadership will be able to commit to abandoning the plans for a gas hook-up for the pool project. We believe this will be a positive, clarifying step for the project and the Town. With the net zero/natural gas issue rendered moot, Hingham voters can then proceed to evaluate the project strictly on its merits.
    – John Borger, on behalf of Hingham Net Zero

  6. Pool proposal before upcoming Town Meeting in line with non-fossil fuel reliant “net zero” principles:

    Good news! We’re delighted to share with you an important update to the 4/13/2022 comment that had been posted on behalf of Hingham Net Zero. HNZ met with Christine Smith, Chair of the Country Club Management Committee (CCMC), Kevin Whalen, Executive Director of the South Shore Country Club and Select Board member Liz Klein. They confirmed there is no plan to connect to natural gas in Phase I of this project (construction of the seasonal pool), assuming it goes forward with the voters’ approval of the Pool Warrant Article #18. They will continue to work with Hingham Net Zero to try to identify a non-fossil fuel reliant, all-electric heat pump solution for the bubble, in anticipation of bringing that option before the voters in the next few years. This agreement effectively removes the natural gas issue from consideration as part of the upcoming vote on Warrant Article #18 and voters can now make their decision on the seasonal pool solely on its merits. HNZ commends the CCMC for their good faith accommodation and shared commitment to the Town’s goal of net zero by 2040. – John Borger, on behalf of HNZ


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