Letter to the City of Iowa City: Data supports saving the Robert A. Lee pool

The Robert A. Lee Recreation Center on Friday, May 20, 2022, in Iowa City. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

To the members of the Iowa City Parks & Recreation Commission and City Council,

We are writing to express our support for keeping the downtown Robert A. Lee (RAL) pool open and for making necessary repairs. Having attended several meetings of the City Council and the Parks & Recreation Department, and after reviewing relevant information provided to us in response to our records request, we feel it is important to identify the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the recommendations that have been made to eliminate the RAL pool.

Unless otherwise noted, the pages cited as source material throughout this letter are from the July 13, 2022, Iowa City Parks & Recreation Condition of the Pools report.


Reasonable Repair Costs Would Extend RAL Pool Operation for Years

While Parks & Recreation staff suggest that the RAL pool needs extensive and expensive repairs and therefore recommend that the RAL pool be closed, the figures provided in the Report suggest that estimated repairs to the pool would actually cost fewer than $600,000. Thus, reports that the RAL pool repairs would cost $4.5-5 million are clearly misleading, since these costs are for the entire RAL facility, not just the pool.

WT Group’s estimate to repair the RAL pool is $471,000, to be instituted over three to five years (pp. 70-73). These repairs include items such as pool inlet piping, supply and gutter collection piping, surge tank, and filters. The repair estimates include $70,000-90,000 for new EPD (sand) filters and a $60,000-80,000 allowance for a new surge tank (p. 72). It should be noted these two repairs have already been accounted for in the current Parks & Rec budget (new surge tank p. 67) and $640,000 for pool filter and HVAC (p. 225). Williams Architects estimate repairs to the natatorium such as remediating rust on roof beam connections and door hardware at $108, 000. The total for repairing the entire pool structure is $579,000, an amount far less than the $4.5-5.04 million reported in BerryDunn’s Gather Here Recreation Master Plan or $4.7 million (p. 184) and oft repeated by staff and administrators.

More importantly, if the repairs and replacements are completed, the RAL Aquatic Center Pool “could continue to operate…for many years,” according to the WT Group Executive Summary (p. 61). Part of the cost confusion arises because reported expenses for RAL pool repairs are being conflated with projected improvements and repairs to the entire RAL facility not related to the pool. These would include locker room renovation, roof replacement, egress compliance, and lobby, exterior, gymnasium, and meeting room updates (p. 85). Williams Architects’ recommended building improvements and repairs (including the natatorium) total $4.1 million over 10 years (p. 83), but these costs stand separate from pool repairs.

In summary, the life of the RAL pool could be extended for many years by making the necessary repairs to the pool ($471,000) and natatorium ($108,000), which together equals $579,000 and is nowhere near the $4.7 million figure quoted for the pool alone (p. 184).


At several meetings, Parks & Recreation Department staff have suggested that the RAL pool is rarely used. The attendance sheets of the Report would appear to support this — at first glance (pp. 93-94). However, those attendance sheets do not accurately reflect the actual numbers of people using the RAL pool. In addition, other factors we outline below are being ignored. The reality is that the RAL pool is actively used by a wide variety of pool users.

Pool Users Undercounted

First, and most importantly, data provided do not account for all pool users during the hours the RAL pool is open and instead greatly underestimate actual numbers. As Juli Seydell Johnson explained at the tour of the RAL pool on July 13, the numbers listed on an attendance sheet for May come from Parks & Rec staff who watch security footage (at 1:10 on the online Parks & Rec Commission Meeting of July 13, 2022 – Tour of Pool Facilities video) and only include people who are lap swimming, once an hour (p. 93). Presumably, lap walkers, aqua-fitness class participants, deep-water aquacisers, swim-lesson students, and others who use the pool were simply not counted. June’s table entitled, “RALRC Lap Lane Snapshot Counts” is also incomplete and adds an unclear category besides lap swimmers (no “AF Class or lap swim — includes diving well use and family swim use”), but this heading is puzzling, because the dates don’t include Sundays, when many families swim (p. 94). In addition, only one number is provided per day for this added category, and the time staff collected counts is not recorded. Other than the one count per hour, data also omit the many pool users who come and go during a one-hour period. The result: RAL pool users are being undercounted.

Twenty-three pool users enjoy a wide variety of activities in RAL pool on June 6 at 8:15 am, while Parks & Rec attendance report records only three in the pool at that time. — courtesy of Jill Fishbaugh

Aquacisers Undercounted

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Second, the specific omission of aquacise participants in daily counts is significant. These pool users attend regularly, and the 12-15 participants fill the three lap lanes dedicated to the activity, while the other three lanes are used by lap swimmers. Instead of counting aquacise participants in the water on the days they attend, water-fitness registrations are reported separately in the Report (p. 149). But these numbers only count class registrants, not the number of days the participants are in the pool. Since each class meets four times/month, that’s 152 people in May and 124 people in June that aren’t being added to the counts. The Report also shows a significantly higher water-fitness participation at RAL than at Mercer (more than 1.6 times greater), both in the number of classes offered and the number of participants (p. 149). Over the six-month period listed, RAL shows almost double the number of water-fitness participants (247/131), yet these numbers are not reflected in the daily pool counts (pp. 93-94). Again, RAL pool users, per day, are undercounted. Additionally, on days when aquacise participants and other pool users are in the RAL pool, the pool is near capacity.

Family Swim, Swim Lessons, and Special Events Not Counted

Third, like the omission of aquacise participants, the omission of pool users on Sunday evenings and during afterschool swim-lesson programs and special-events greatly skews understanding of the importance and centrality of the RAL pool. It is our understanding that 20-30 students attend swim classes every 30 minutes, between 4:00 and 7:00 p.m., Monday through Friday, as well as on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year, when City Park pool is closed. The Report states that “The pool gets busy during lessons” (p. 62). Special event participation, such as Swimtroduction, teen nights, She Swims Too, Junior Lifeguard, Sensory Swims, Splish Splash Story Times, Egg Hunt, Noon Year’s Eve Ball Drop, and Pumpkin Float, is also documented (p. 54). These programs, in addition to birthday parties, which amount to hundreds of students using the pool, are missing in the attendance numbers.

Passholders Undercounted

Fourth, many RAL pool users use annual and monthly passes, yet these same users are not accounted for in the daily counts. It came to our attention that these passholders are only counted as one person per month. Matt Eidahl says, at 1:12:35 on the online Parks & Rec Commission Meeting of July 13, 2022 – Tour of Pool Facilities video, referring to p. 148, “The first line, the green one, is Unique Pass Holders, so that just counted one individual one time in the month. So, if an individual would come in five times or every day of the week, it would only count them one time for the month.” He then reported that the “Total Pass” column shows the number of times passes were scanned. From experience, we know that reception staff do not require everyone to scan their pass resulting in undercounts of passholders who use the pool.

ICPR Staff and Red Cross Trainings Not Counted

Fifth, ICPR staff receive and conduct aquatic safety trainings at the RAL pool. These trainings require partial or complete pool closure and include scores of staff members over the course of a year. These pool users are also not counted but should be included in the total number.

Parks & Rec Daily Counts Inaccurate

Sixth, accurate data about daily swim activities is lacking, and the erroneous representation Juli Seydell Johnson continues to maintain that only zero to two swimmers use RAL at any one time is simply untrue. For example, at 44:51 of the June 21 City Council work session, she conveyed, “It’s not uncommon to have zero, one, or two lap swimmers for a greater portion of the day.” Currently, the pool is closed for the greater portion of the day, and those of us who attend the RAL pool have kept track of how many people use the six-lane pool daily. The numbers we find are far higher than those being “reported.”

One regular pool user documented over a seven-month period that the average number of pool users was seven or more at the time they arrived. Many users avoid the days when aquacise classes are held because the pool is too full (up to 23 at one time)! Seven might be an underestimate of actual pool usage since people come and go during any hour period. In the past few months, others have also documented pool attendance, and those numbers are greater as well. We don’t understand why the Parks & Rec Commission is so eager to close the RAL pool, when data do not support this decision.

Drastic Reduction of Hours Limits Usage

Finally, regarding RAL pool usage, we ask that you remember that the data being presented were collected after the RAL pool hours were cut drastically from what they had been for decades. Since January, the hours have amounted to 4.75 hours per day, Monday through Friday, with different hours on Saturday and Sunday. This also means that comparisons to Mercer are simply unfair since Mercer’s full-day hours have not been cut. RAL pool users have shown enormous dedication to try to squeeze in pool use between the hours of 6:15 and 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., Monday through Friday. This inconvenient reduction has NOT resulted in fewer pool users but instead shown the dedication of those who are committed to the mental and physical health benefits provided by swimming in the warm-water RAL pool, accessible to pool users from toddlers to seniors, in the heart of Iowa City.


Iowa Citians Rank Aquatics #1 and RAL Pool Provides a Significant Part of that Service

The recommendation to close the RAL pool is inconsistent with the community feedback and key findings identified in the Report. In the Report’s Gather Here Recreation Facilities & Programs Master Plan (pp. 187-229), Aquatics ranks number one, above all other program enrollments in the period reported (p. 201). The Report also notes that, for indoor pools, a “downtown/central location” is preferred, and that RAL is “more accessible” (p. 227). Furthermore, the section entitled, “High Level Community Engagement Themes,” lists “High value on aquatics,” including aqua fitness, lap lanes, and instruction (p. 197). Likewise, “Top Investment Priorities,” based on the “ETC Statistically Valid Survey,” list pool programs including water fitness classes/water aerobics, lap swimming, senior aquatic programs, and swim lessons as main concerns (p. 195). The report also identifies “aquatic program” as a “growth opportunity,” noting that “75% of ‘high priority’ pool programs involves forms of aquatic exercise” (p. 204). Together, these community-informed responses are powerful indicators of what the citizens desire and RAL provides: a downtown pool in a central location, accessible to all, with diverse programming and opportunities.

Report Ignores Public Comments

If public input is an important part of the process, it should be noted that 1) at least 12 of the 44 focus group participants were city employees – a significant portion of a focus group whose purpose was to reflect community sentiment; and 2) public support comments for keeping RAL pool open in the Report’s survey data are missing. Through a public information request, we obtained access to the survey’s public comments and found those who commented specifically about RAL pool were overwhelmingly positive (76%). Of those who were critical, their concerns included the pool being too busy, not enough lap lanes to swim, and not enough hours open for use. These suggestions actually show that people want RAL pool’s services expanded, not eliminated.

The following are typical of those who commented about RAL pool:

“Restore and keep the Robert A Lee pool open and extend hours!!!!”

“We do not need a ‘warm water’ pool at Mercer that will take away lap swim and other aquatic programming at Robert A Lee for twice the cost. Robert A Lee is far more equitable, sustainable option. This survey does not address the closure of this important community asset (Robert A Lee pool).”

“DO NOT CLOSE THE DOWNTOWN ROBERT E. LEE POOL. I could not find a specific survey about the downtown pool, which sends a message your decision to close it is already a done deal. Please keep the Downtown open. Also, add lap lanes and hours for lap swimmers at all pools.”

“There really should be three pools. Central (rec center), East (Mercer) and a new western aquatic center.”

“RAL pool should not be closed.”

“Do not close downtown pool. People walk from work to the pool at lunch and after work.”

“Keep Robert A. Lee pool open.”


The RAL pool and natatorium could be repaired for $579,000. This is eight times less than what’s being reported.

Furthermore, in 1968, Iowa City determined that a third pool was necessary and therefore built the Mercer Park pool. Since that time, Iowa City’s population has grown by 60 percent and continues to grow. Iowa Citians highly value aquatics. Closing RAL pool would be shortsighted and goes against its citizens’ priorities.

Despite drastically slashed hours, the RAL pool continues to see robust usage, thus meeting the community’s needs in an appealing and accessible location. The investment and commitment to repair the RAL pool would result in years of benefits to Iowa City residents.

Please continue to fund and maintain this valuable and well-utilized community resource.


Mark Cannon
Carin Crain
Jill Fishbaugh
Justin Fishbaugh
Amy Kretkowski

Susan Mellecker
Anne Stapleton