May 27—LEWISTON — There may be some options for kids to cool down this summer, but the Kennedy Park pool will not be one of them.
City staff said this week that the public pool will not open for a second straight year due to lingering safety concerns related to COVID-19 as well as staffing issues.
Instead, officials are working on alternate options, including additional water features at Kennedy Park and potentially at other locations.
According to Deputy City Administrator Dale Doughty, the city was caught in a difficult position during budget season, when a decision on annual funding for pool operations had to be made months before summer.
At the time, many of the COVID-19 restrictions were still in place, he said. More recently, Lewiston has also lagged in vaccination rates, and earlier this month Central Maine Medical Center saw record numbers of COVID-19 patients.
"Not knowing what summer would bring, and not knowing if we could even open if we wanted to, (we) thought using those funds elsewhere for the summer seemed to be prudent," he said.
Referring to the COVID-19 concerns, he said the city is "still being cautious."
Mary Ann Brenchick, Lewiston Public Works director, said the city is working on "expanding" its water features at the park and possibly elsewhere, but is still working out details.
"We understand it gets hot in the city and we want to create fun, water-related events for our city's kids," she said, adding that staff is also working with other organizations to explore options.
On Wednesday, temperatures in Lewiston reached above 90 degrees, a summer scorcher in May. At the pool, the winter cover is still in place, along with a few discarded items like plastic bottles, a large branch and a football. The city just recently reopened the basketball courts at the park after constituent feedback.
Doughty said Wednesday that Public Works employees will still maintain the pool, and may take the opportunity to catch up on maintenance "they may not get to other years."
Brenchick said the recent shakeup of the Recreation Department due to the pandemic has also played a role. When making budget decisions, the city was still searching for a new recreation superintendent, and in prior years the city has struggled to find summer staff for the pool. The city recently hired Nicole Welch as superintendent.
"Unfortunately, we are not opening the pool this year," she said in an email. "With the unpredictable COVID restrictions at the time and the search for a new (superintendent) underway, we decided to take out the operational pool costs from our (fiscal year 2022) budget. We also had a lot of trouble finding staffing in previous years and continue to have low numbers applying for even our summer camp."
Brenchick said the city's plan now is "to create a strong pool program for summer 2022," as well as work with the Lewiston High School swim team for possible lifeguard staffing.
For fiscal year 2018-19, the aquatics program budget was $16,685. The pool typically opens the last week of June.
In normal years, public pools are often expensive to operate. In 2017, the city began charging $1 admission to the pool due to rising costs, but following public outcry, a number of Lewiston business owners and residents donated enough money to keep the pool free.
Last year in Westbrook, a heavy public response stalled a proposal to close the Cornelia Warren pool and replace it with a splash pad.
Doughty said while details on water features are still being ironed out, he believes it will look something like a splash pad, which is already a feature at the Kennedy Park pool.
He said Wednesday's sweltering weather kicked the planning into overdrive.
"It's crazy out there," he said.