A group of kids expending their energy splashing, swimming and having fun at all times of the year was always part of the vision for Mitchell getting a new indoor pool.

Groups all of ages have found places to make the $8 million pool a place they enjoy.

But the five-year process of approving the pool to reach this point was fraught with debate and questions about the facility, whether it would get used enough, whether the costs would be worth it, and whether Mitchell could afford that kind of investment.

"When you're dealing with anything in aquatics, it's going to be fairly expensive," said Recreation Supervisor Kevin DeVries. "It all comes down to the quality of life, and the community wanted to bring that to Mitchell."

With the pool now open nearly a full year - 10-and-a-half months, or 320 days, since it opened on June 25, 2018 - The Daily Republic examined the costs of the pool and looked at how the new indoor pool has fared to date.

The cost of operating the pool was a hotly contested issue around the Dec. 8, 2015 vote that saw 54 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of the 22,635-square foot pool, which included a competitive lap pool, a leisure pool, play equipment, a slide, storage space, locker room space, landscaping and competition equipment. Estimates of the pool's costs ranged from $86,620 to as much as $250,000 to $400,000 in operational costs, with the latter being cited by the building's architect months after the vote was held.

With the pool now finished, the Mitchell Recreation Center didn't have separate itemized costs for the indoor pool itself, only looking at the entire Rec Center's utility expenses.

In figures provided to the newspaper by the Rec Center, the building's utility costs in 2018 were $141,410, a little over double the amount of the facility's utility costs from the previous year's $70,534.

The utility expenses for the three years prior to the pool's completion (2016-18) averaged $68,286.84. In 2018, with more than six full months of the pool being open, utility costs were $141,410. And in the first four months of 2019, utility expenses have been $57,325.

Extrapolated out over all of 2019, City Administrator Stephanie Ellwein estimates the building is on pace for about a $30,000 increase in utility expenses over last year, which would be about $171,000 in expenses to run the pool and the building. (The city's definition of utilities includes water, electricity and heating and cooling.)

DeVries said he believes the water bill is likely the main factor contributing to the increase in utilities. Mitchell's exceptionally cold winter likely had an impact, as well.

While expenses have gone up for the Recreation Center, revenue has followed with a climb of its own.

According to Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Powell, from July 2017 to February 2018, the Rec Center's revenue was $223,129, while expenses were $343,196, a net loss of $120,067. In the similar six-month period - now with the pool open - from July 2018 to February 2019, the Rec Center's revenue climbed to $382,012, while expenses also increased to $513,063, with a net loss of $131,051.

In short, the Mitchell Recreation Center is losing almost $11,000 more than it was in the same six-month period without the pool. Revenue for the building is up nearly 54 percent, while expenses are up 49.5 percent.

Understanding the costs

The tradeoff works for current Mitchell Mayor Bob Everson, and the Parks and Recreation Department said they are on target for the 75 percent cost recovery rate recommended by a consultant prior to the pool opening.

"I've noticed a lot of growing support for the pool since its arrival, and I'm proud our city has a new recreational opportunity," Everson said. "The operational costs haven't superseded my expectations, and I think the Rec is doing a great job in recovery efforts."

The Mitchell City Council approved the funding package in August 2015, but the decision was referred by residents to a special election. The project was funded with $4.8 million in city surplus funds, along with $750,000 from community project reserves. A loan payment of $500,000 from the Mitchell Area Development Corporation, and contributions from the Mitchell Aquatic Club and increased Business Improvement District taxes, covered the final $2 million. The swim club pays $10 per lane per hour for use of the pool, and $1,200 for swim meets. The BID increase affects local hotels and motels an extra 50 cents per night on top of the previously existing $1 per night tax.

Ellwein said the Parks and Recreation Department has met the right goals in making up for the pool's higher operational costs.

"Because of the membership increases, the pool costs aren't alarming to me," Ellwein said. "The Rec has only been staffing the pool as needed, and that's been a huge help for making the cost recovery marks."

For the revenue boost, Ellwein pointed to the increase of the Rec Center's membership fee and membership sign ups for helping spike revenue in 2018, led by Parks and Recreation Department Director Nathan Powell.

"Nate's changes he has made with the department since he's implemented the business plan recommended by the consultant have really helped make up for the costs of the pool," Ellwein said.

On average, monthly membership rates at the Mitchell Recreation Center have gone up $9 from 2018 to 2019, and up $12 per month from 2017 to 2019. For example, a family membership has gone from $45 in 2017 to $65 per month in 2019, with the access to the indoor pool being a key new asset. Single adult, seniors and youth monthly memberships have seen the smallest increases, going up by $4 to $6 over last year's rate and $6 to $9 from 2017.

Annual memberships have gone up by an average of $49 per year from 2018, and up $75 from 2017. A family membership for a whole year in 2019 is $73 more expensive than it was in 2018, and $112 more than in 2017.

With the addition of the pool, Mitchell's "Fun Pass," which can include access to the indoor pool, the Mitchell Activities Center ice rink, Lakeview Golf Course and Village Bowl, has become a better value, with monthly rates that are the same as they were two years ago or have decreased with an annual membership by 6 to 7 percent compared to last year's rate.

Getting the word out

Ellwein also credited the Rec Center staff for promoting the indoor pool, which she said has contributed to more memberships with the city's facility. For example, the city has been aggressive with local cable advertising showcasing the pool and its features.

"The staff at the Rec Department has been doing a great job in working to get more people to the pool," Ellwein said. "The increase in membership shows that the staff are looking for ways to improve their operations."

DeVries said the Rec Center doesn't offer indoor pool-only memberships, to help offer more variety to the facility's services, along with helping promote the pool.

After the June 2018 indoor pool opening day, DeVries said memberships have steadily climbed. According to a recent Rec membership report, there were 2,123 active members in June 2018, which spiked to 2,644 six months later in December, which DeVries said were the most recent figures available.

Jamie Henkel, Mitchell Parks and Recreation aquatics coordinator, is in charge of helping drive traffic and promote the Indoor Aquatic Center. She manages the pool with the help of 33 lifeguards, which Henkel said includes a mix of Dakota Wesleyan University and Mitchell High School students.

According to Henkel, one effective use of the pool so far is group rentals. Groups can rent the Indoor Aquatic Center for a minimum of two hours at a rate of $250 per hour. The two-hour minimum is due to groups most commonly requesting at least two hours at a time.

"It's awesome seeing DWU sports teams come and do workouts here and rent the pool for an allotted amount of time, because it shows the community is taking advantage of this nice of a pool," Henkel said.

DeVries said he thinks city residents and Rec Center users have found a way to embrace the pool and rally around the community of Mitchell's decision.

"I've given many tours of the Rec and heard a lot of people open up to me by the end of the tour and explain how they were opponents against the pool, but by the end, they tell me they understand why our voters wanted it," DeVries said. "We're doing the best we can to expose the quality of life this pool offers."