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Politics

Many cities struggle with old public pools like Tampa’s

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Published:   |   Updated: December 16, 2013 at 05:54 PM

TAMPA — As city officials try to chart a future for Tampa’s shuttered Cuscaden Pool, they’re in good company.

Cuscaden has sister swim centers all over the United States.

The pools are the legacy of Wesley Bintz, a Michigan engineer who patented the above-ground structures nearly a century ago. Over some 50 years, starting in 1919, Bintz pools went up in communities from Maine to Florida, New York to Texas.

Tegan Baiocchi began studying Bintz pools while getting a master’s degree in historic preservation at Eastern Michigan University. While living in Alabama several years ago, she began a blog featuring the pools.

“I was struck by just how many of these pools had been constructed, and also how few of them exist today,” Baiocchi said. “Almost every community seemed to think that their swimming pools was one-of-a-kind. But in reality there were only really five or so different Bintz pool designs that might be modified slightly for each community.”

Tampa’s two Bintz pools — Cuscaden in the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, and Jenkins on Davis Islands — were built in the late 1930s at the height of Bintz’s popularity.

At the time, company officials promoted their pools as 25 to 40 percent cheaper than similarly sized in-ground pools.

“Wesley Bintz was a pretty remarkable pool designer,” said Bruce Wigo, president of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale.

That said, Bintz pools were also a little fragile and took a lot of TLC, Baiocchi.

“They’re essentially buildings filled with water, which brings about a whole bunch of maintenance issues that other buildings don’t have to deal with,” she said.

Wigo said the Hall of Fame is trying to compile an archive of Bintz pools, but it’s a challenge.

“Most of them were destroyed and replace in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said.

The pools that remain are in varying states of disrepair.

In Fayette, Mo., east of Kansas City, the city spent about two-thirds of its parks department’s $15,000 maintenance budget keeping its 1936 Bintz pool running.

The city got the pool listed on the National Register of Historic Places more than a decade ago. It remains a landmark, but one that inspires regular discussions about its future, said City Administrator Robin Triplett.

“We’ve had a few issues over the years, with the mechanical functions of it,” Triplett said. “The building still needs repairs.”

In Troy, N.Y., the city’s Bintz pool was built nearly 70 years ago as the star attraction in Prospect Park in the middle of town.

City officials explored the cost of renovating their Bintz pools about 15 years ago. The price tag then was $500,000, said George Rogers, the city’s recreation director.

“I can’t imagine what it would cost now to repair it,” Rogers said.

Today, the pool has trees growing in it.

“It’s pretty much a planter,” Rogers said. “It’s tough to see it disintegrate, but that’s what’s happening.”

Rogers said a nonprofit group in Troy is trying to muster the funds to restore the pool. Similar preservation efforts are under way in Weirton, W.Va., and Elmira, N.Y., Baiocchi said.

“Bintz pools are slowly becoming extinct,” Baiocchi said.

The pools are worth preserving because of their connections to their communities’ history, she said.

“But they also connect all of these seemingly different communities, large and small, throughout the nation,” Baiocchi said.

Jenkins Pool is undergoing a $2.25 million renovation partly funded by Davis Islands residents.

Cuscaden’s fate grew cloudy this month when Tampa City Council members failed to get Mayor Bob Buckhorn to shift $1.5 million from other park projects to stabilize the 76-year-old structure.

Councilman Frank Reddick showed photos taken inside the pool building that showed peeling paint and moldy walls. He told the mayor’s staff the pool can’t wait until the 2015 budget year for repairs.

Things turned bleaker when a committee the council created provided its assessment of the pool: It’s not worth keeping.

Since then, the tone has shifted from saving the pool to replacing it, possibly with an Olympic-sized pool.

Baiocchi said Cuscaden seemed like a good candidate for restoration because of Tampa’s warm climate and nearly year-round pool season.

“I usually bring up Cuscaden because it was the first, largest and most detailed restoration of a Bintz pool that I know of,” Baiocchi said. “(It’s) a case study that the best intentions and full funding for everything can backfire.”

Reddick asked city officials to return Jan. 23 with options for Cuscaden.

Buckhorn likes the idea of creating an indoor, in-ground pool that could host indoor swim meets — something he says the city lacks.

V.M. Ybor residents say they’d like to see the pool building preserved and put to another use, even if the pool basin is removed.

Baiocchi said she’s not aware of any other communities reusing their old pool buildings. But she likes the idea.

“If done well, it would likely serve as an inspiration to these other communities who are sitting with this Bintz Pools and wondering what to do with them,” she said.

“I know I wouldn’t ever stop talking about it.”

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7871

Twitter: @kwiatrowskiTBO

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