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story.lead_photo.caption A map showing Withrow Springs State Park.

HUNTSVILLE -- For 50 years, the swimming pool at Withrow Springs State Park has been the summer hangout for kids from Huntsville and surrounding towns.

But just days before it was scheduled to open over Memorial Day weekend for the summer swimming season, the state parks division announced that the pool 5 miles north of Huntsville would remain closed this summer because of safety concerns.

"An engineering investigation into the pool's supporting walls found the potential for a catastrophic failure to be so severe that even park staff cannot enter the area," according to a news release. "The very real risk of bodily harm had to be top priority when arriving at the conclusion to keep visitors out of this part of the park for now."

"It's disappointing," said Faron Ledbetter, the Madison County clerk. "It was a very popular hangout for decades."

Ledbetter, 50, said spending time at the swimming pool wasn't so much about swimming as it was socializing.

The normal routine when Ledbetter was a student at Huntsville High School was to go to the Dari-Hilite and Madison Theater on Saturday nights, then to the swimming pool after church on Sunday afternoons. The eatery and theater are both closed now.

On Saturdays and Sundays, there would be 200 people at the pool, said David Pemberton, 58, who was a lifeguard there when he was in high school at Huntsville.

"You couldn't hardly walk around the surface," he said.

Tamitha Blocker, the chief deputy county clerk, said her parents met at the swimming pool. Her father went to high school in Kingston and her mother in Huntsville.

"There was not a lot for kids to do in Madison County," she said.

The future of the pool has yet to be determined.

"Making the necessary repairs to reopen it is still an option," according to the news release. "Other possibilities include creating a park-focused recreational opportunity."

Either way, it will likely be a costly and time-consuming project, according to Arkansas State Parks, which is a division of the state Department of Parks and Tourism.

There was a harbinger of extended closure when the parks department posted a brief message on arkansasstateparks.com/withrowsprings on May 23 saying the pool would be closed "indefinitely."

After examining the facility last summer, Mark Smith of Tatum-Smith Engineers Inc. of Rogers recommended demolition and replacement of a 50-foot section of the pool deck. It was cracking, spalling and deflecting, according to Smith's report.

He also recommended replacing the east wall of the mechanical room and a 25-foot section of the north wall. The cinder-block walls are cracking because of corrosion of steel-plate lintels, according to the study. The bowed-out east wall of the mechanical room is "an immediate threat to life, safety and welfare of the public and should be fenced off," he wrote.

Meg Matthews, a spokesman for the parks division, said the primary concern last summer was the staff entrance to the mechanical room, so employees were told to use a different door.

"By March, it was decided to issue the 'indefinitely closed' post while we evaluated options for the pool's future," Matthews said. "After more research, it became evident that any project associated with the pool could not be completed by this summer -- hence the pool closure notice. We decided it was best to err on the side of caution while we continue to assess our options."

Earl Minton, superintendent at Withrow Springs State Park, said the pool was built in 1967 and 1968. He said it was renovated in 1997 and 1998.

The renovation eliminated a barrier that separated the deep end from the shallow end of the pool. The result was an 86-by-35-foot swimming pool with a depth that ranged from 1 to 9 feet. A kiddie pool also was added at that time.

The renovation did away with two diving boards and added a water slide, Minton said.

"Those diving boards were such a hazard," he said. "That's why we put in a water slide. They're more kid-friendly."

By removing the diving boards and decreasing the depth at that end from its original 11 feet, the renovation basically turned the main pool into a "kiddie pool," Pemberton said. But he acknowledged the safety issue.

"In the diving pool, you could miss the water if you were showing off," Pemberton said. "Nobody ever actually hit the concrete, nobody that I know of."

Minton said he didn't notice fewer high school kids using the pool after the renovation in the late 1990s.

"I remember seeing all ages up there over the years," said Minton, who has worked at the park since 1990.

The pool could be rented for birthday parties, and the Girl Scouts often reserved it in the mornings, Pemberton said. Swimming lessons also were taught there, he said.

Huntsville Mayor Darrell Trahan said the city isn't prepared to build a replacement pool.

"It would take us a year of planning and another three years of fundraising before we can even think about that," he said.

Trahan has applied for a grant to build a "splash pad" in downtown Huntsville. He said a splash pad features water sprinklers and sprayers for children's entertainment, but no pool.

Trahan is worried that fewer people will visit the state park if the pool is closed, and that means fewer people going to Huntsville to buy groceries or to eat in the restaurants.

He said the swimming pool was the anchor of the state park.

"The biggest concern I have with it is not how it's going to impact our local people -- they can just head to the creek -- but how it's going to impact Withrow, and that impacts the city," Trahan said.

"It's too snaky to go to the creek," said Virginia Slaughter. "They need to reopen the swimming pool. I'm raising two grandkids right now. They've been wanting to go swim at the pool, but it's closed."

While the pool is closed, the rest of Withrow Springs State Park remains open. The spring for which the park is named "gushes" from a cave at the foot of a bluff, as it's described in the news release about the pool closure.

"Nestled in a narrow valley cradled by the limestone bluffs of the War Eagle Creek, this park provides a peaceful setting for camping, hiking and quiet floats," the release says.

From 2006 to 2017, the parks system invested nearly $3.5 million on repair and renovation projects at Withrow Springs, according to the news release. That figure includes about $1.8 million for construction of new campgrounds.

Withrow Springs was one of seven state parks that had swimming pools. The others are Crater of Diamonds in Murfreesboro, Devil's Den in West Fork, Lake Chicot in Lake Village, Lake Fort Smith in Mountainburg, Mount Nebo in Dardanelle and Petit Jean in Morrilton.

But this will be the first summer in more than half a century without a public pool near Huntsville.

"It's going to be a long, hot summer," the mayor said. "A long, hot, dry summer."

Metro on 06/03/2018

Print Headline: Closing lobs cold water on summer

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