Golden Square Pool officially safe after 10 years treading water

The Golden Square Swimming Pool is a century-old outdoor aquatic facility hosting a 50 metre pool, a learning intermediate pool, and a toddler’s splash pool. It’s run by a hefty group of volunteers, creating a functioning community space for the Golden Square residents and a “heat-haven” during the summer.

For the last 10 years, it has also been the living victim of the City of Greater Bendigo Council’s Aquatic Facilities Strategy. It is a list of recommendations that help council “address significant and complicated challenges in providing community aquatic facilities”. The pool was constructed around the mid-1900s during the massive swimming boom caused by the 1956 Olympic Games. The strategy lists the Golden Square Pool as being in poor condition (alongside Raywood, Elmore and White Hills pools).

The president of the Golden Square Pool Committee is the City of Greater Bendigo’s Young Citizen of 2019: Sam Kane. He has been involved in the campaign to save the pool for 8 years and was recently re-elected to serve as the committee’s president for a third term.

“I remember putting a blue banner and a blue ribbon on my fence and getting involved with ‘Save Our Pool’,” Kane recalls. The community enlisted Golden Square residents to put up blue ribbons and signs to support the pool and encourage council to reconsider its decommissioning. “Our campaign in 2012 was really two campaigns. We went to council in February of 2013 to see if the pool would be saved after we first started our campaign.”

As the 2013 judgement day for the pool drew near, tension between protestors and council began to boil in the pool-less heat. A group of aquatic vigilantes cut the locks at the site and turned on the water taps, re-filling the empty pool. Though campaign spokesman Ken Hamilton claimed no one from the campaign itself was responsible, they gathered to stand in the way of the City of Greater Bendigo truck arriving to drain the water. Blair Thompson of the Bendigo Advertiser reported police were called to ensure the gathering remained peaceful. Lockwood ward councillors moved for a rescission on the original vote to close the pool, but this was repelled. The closure of the pool seemed inevitable.

“We actually then offered to run it ourselves,” Kane states plainly.

On the proviso the group of volunteers operated the site, the City of Greater Bendigo had agreed to contribute approximately $50,000. Closure would be re-visited upon the completion of the Gurri Wanyarra Wellbeing Centre – originally referred to as Kangaroo Flat Aquatic Centre. Any maintenance costs were the responsibility of the volunteers.

Now a trial-by-fire, the established Golden Square Pool Committee needed to learn how to run the pool and raise the money to pay for repairs, life guards, and the myriad of other operation checks (quoted by council as being upwards of $200,000) the pool desperately needed before it could be re-opened. But their hard work tin-rattling and grant-sourcing paid off. Still just a volunteer, Kane published a report in the Bendigo Advertiser on 13 March, 2014, stating “This just shows the dedication and power of community”.

Gurri Wanyarra finally opened in 2018. The Golden Square Pool had just celebrated its 100th birthday when the original recommendation for closure caught up with it. On February 21, councillors marched past a crowd of approximately 100 people familiar with the looming threat of the pool’s closure gathering outside of the town hall.

“There was a big crowd outside the council meeting, there was a big crowd of supporters that came in to the council meeting,” councillor Jennifer Alden recalls. She has been working closely with the pool during her term on council, and just the mention of her name has Kane burst into a wide smile. He recognises her as one of the pool’s strongest council supporters.

“It was a very big crowd observing,” she continues, “there was a lot of media around it, and instead of the original recommendation to close it, I put forward the recommendation to keep it open for another two years.”

The dance with the pool was delayed once more until 2020. The volunteer committee running the pool would continue to be responsible for maintenance and repairs (as well as any infrastructure failure costs), with the $50,000 funding from the City of Greater Bendigo.

They also had to monitor the pool’s patronage over the following seasons, as Golden Square Pool would operate concurrently with Kangaroo Flat’s new indoor facility, as its position between the modern Faith Leech Aquatic Centre and the Gurri Wanyarra Wellbeing Centre makes it difficult to justify its continued operation, as the pool is a 5 minute drive away from the new modern centres (or a 40 minute walk).

However, the Golden Square Pool Inc. 2020-2024 Strategic Plan indicates the pool’s patronage has increased by 980 per cent since 2013

The vote whether to close the pool rolled round again in March 2020, but it when councillor Matt Emond recommended further community consultation on the reserve master plan. For 3 months, a survey of 409 people was conducted online.

“Of the various combinations of keeping the pool, not keeping the pool, moving the bowling club, not moving the bowling club, 61 per cent of the community wanted to keep the pool there, and about 10 per cent wanted no change,” Alden reports.

“It meant that over 70 per cent of the community wanted the pool there. However, what the council then recommended was closure of the pool because the option they had recommended had over 19 per cent support.” The councillor looks away for a moment with a quizzical pull of her brow, a tiny smile built with utter perplexment crossing her face. “So that was an unusual recommendation.”

What is a pool worth?

A consistent argument against keeping the pool involves concerns regarding the century-old facility’s cost of maintenance and operation. “It is an aging asset,” Kane admits. “We work closely with a number of pool engineers. So we assess — okay, we know the pool is aging, but what can we do to the best of our ability and in terms of our financial capability.

The costs of running the Golden Square Pool in its current condition is estimated as being around $80,000 – $90,000 per annum, though this is supplemented by sourced grants and paying patrons. According to the Aquatic Strategy released July 2020, the pool has the lowest subsidiary and grant allocation of all aquatic facilities maintained by council. “We get an operating budget of $50,000 from the City of Greater Bendigo each year, and that only covers a small fraction of the costs to run a pool,” Kane states. “We have the general costs of water, electricity, gas and wages as well, because we do have some lifeguards who are paid as part of the model. Where [other pools] would pay to get all the maintenance done, we have the crew of people who do that. It’s cutting huge amount of costs away.”

Richmond-based company, Otium Planning Group, also responsible for Gurri Wanyarra’s planning and design, were contracted in 2018 to put together the Golden Square Recreation Reserve Master Plan. The documents provided to those surveyed in 2020 list the cost to upgrade the Golden Square Pool at $6.275 million.

“There was no rationale. That’s like if you had a blank slate and you were just building a new pool,” says Alden. Council was advised the number was an “indicative estimate” — however, the documents released to City of Greater Bendigo residents during the survey do not reflect this, and Otium Planning declined to provide an itemised list pertaining to the estimate for the pool upgrade. “It did create a mis-match between what was being put out there as this is gonna cost us a lot of money and then people saying but hang on, that’s actually not what’s needed. If there’s to be maintenance it might only be a couple hundred thousand. We could fundraise that amount elsewhere.”

Land-locked

The pool sits meekly in a corner of a land-locked block on Maple Street. It shares the block with an oval with a single netball court on the far corner, and bowls greens pushed up against the back of its kiosk. The block is the subject of the Golden Square Recreation Reserve Master Plan: ideally, the master plan would see an upgrade to all three sites. 

Five options were presented to stakeholders involved in the use of the recreation reserve, including the pool committee, the lawn bowls club, and the football and netball club. Of these options, the senior Golden Square Football Netball Club favoured Development Option 3, which saw the pool replaced with two netball courts. Despite a clear visual indicator of unease between one another, the clubs are adamant their preference has nothing to do with politics.

“We are struggling to cater for our players, in particular the female players of both netball and football,” says Brendan Stewart, president of the Golden Square Football Netball Club. “We only have one netball court. There’s absolutely no scope for expansion at all. The addition of female football, both girls and women… there’s pressure on all the facilities, ours in particular, to cater to the needs of female players.”

The relationship between the reserve’s user groups (and council, by extension) is best described as “tense”. Kane pauses at the end of the discussion to check he hasn’t said anything he considers too controversial – and as Stewart talks about the Football Netball Club’s relation to the pool, he admits the club treats the matter warily.

Stewart summarises the decade plainly: “It has been quite the political campaign.”

Here to stay

The indecisive nature of City of Greater Bendigo’s Golden Square Recreation Reserve finally came to a close on 15 July, 2020. The motion to decommission the Golden Square Pool and proceed with the Golden Square Recreation Reserve Master Plan’s third option, despite the survey of 409 people suggesting the community desired otherwise, lost by the skin of its teeth: one vote.

The alternate motion put forward by councillor Alden to retain the Golden Square Pool and adopt the plan’s first option (thereby moving the bowls and croquet clubs and acquiring Backhaus Oval Reserve) passed 6 to 3.

The resolution allows the pool to operate with an ongoing lease. However, the other user groups can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. As of September, the bowling club has not yet been relocated. “There’s so much uncertainty around that,” Stewart remarks. “In the meantime, we still have the one netball court catering for five women teams.”

In the meantime, the Golden Square Pool intends to re-open its doors in November for the 2020/2021 season.

“We’re in a really fortunate position now that council have given us their blessing to operate the pool,” Kane smiles. “And now we can get on and do it without feeling like we’re always facing closure.”

Golden Square Pool waiting patiently for the next season of swimming.

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