Hammond's recent decision to not open its swimming pools this summer follows a trend of declining availability of what were once popular summer gathering spots.

In announcing the closures this year, Hammond officials cited safety concerns and the expense of making needed repairs. Parks and Recreation Administrator Mark Heintz said earlier this month that even if the repairs were started immediately they would not be completed in time for the swimming season.

"The No. 1 concern is no one wants anyone to be hurt," he said.

Mayor Thomas M. McDermott Jr. also cited declining attendance at the city's four neighborhood pools. He said officials would take the coming year to consider whether the pools should be replaced permanently with alternate forms of recreation in those areas.

Heintz said the city is going to explore different possibilities. Those could include discussions with the schools, the YMCA or a private entity.

The decision to shut down the pools this year was an unpopular one for residents Gary and Glennis Baker, who appeared at a recent council meeting to complain about the closure.

Gary Baker said his wife suffers from physical ailments and the exercise she gets at the local municipal pool "helps her immensely." They had hoped the city would be able to at least keep open the Edison Park pool, at Mulberry Street and Madison Avenue, nearby their home in South Hammond. Overall, however, Heintz indicated the Parks Department has not received that many calls about the closures. 

There is a pool available for people who join the fitness center at the Hammond Civic Center in the 5800 block of Sohl Avenue in Central Hammond. There also is the public beach at Hammond Marina along with the splash pad at Wolf Lake.

Officials also are exploring whether they can make the Civic Center pool open to the public on certain days when the temperatures are extreme.

Hammond would not be alone in moving away from municipal pools. Gary used to have 10 municipal pools, but this year will open only the pools at Tolleston Park, 1500 Rutledge St., along with Roosevelt Park, 2200 Harrison St., to the east of Tolleston in the Midtown section of the city.

"The national trend is to go with splash pads for a number of reasons, but mainly for safety reasons since pools have more of a risk of drowning," said Gary Parks Superintendent McKenya Dilworth.

Splashing down from the heights

Decades ago municipal pools were among the most popular form of recreation for people across the country.

"From the 1920s to the 1950s, municipal pools served as centers of community life and arenas for public discourse," wrote Jeff Wiltse, in his book "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America." "Hundreds and sometimes thousands of people gathered at these public spaces where the contact was sustained and interactive."

McDermott and Wiltse both pointed to the increase of private pools as a reason for the declining attendance at the municipal pools. Wiltse said the proliferation of these pools skyrocketed after the mid-1950s. According to Wiltse, the poor and working class suffered most directly from the privatizing of the pools.

In the 1970s, economic factors found many communities not only abandoning plans for new pools, but also deferring maintenance on existing pools.

In an interview earlier this month, Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana, said there also was a rash of municipal pool closures from 2008 to 2010. Many did not open again. During periods of economic downturn, Wiltse said pools seem to be one of the main items to be cut.

Wiltse said he gets the argument pools can be expensive.

"I think a lot of public officials see community pools as a luxury their community cannot really afford," Wiltse said.

Wiltse, however, does not agree with that position and said pools provide a vital service in a variety of ways, including fitness and teaching life-saving skills that people don't get from a splash pad or water park.

Public desire for pools mixed

Many communities offer other options for people to cool off during the hot weather. LaPorte does not have a public pool, but residents can swim at Stone Lake Beach, which is guarded during the summer.

Park Superintendent Mark Schreiber said the city gets an occasional request for a public pool, but not very often.

"Coming from a YMCA background, I can tell you pools are very expensive to maintain," he said. "There are also the liability and staffing costs. However, public pools, especially indoor pools like at a local school or YMCA, are essential to communities in teaching swimming and water safety."

Valparaiso's master plan for its park system makes reference to an outdoor pool facility. Parks Director John Seibert, noting the high capital and operational costs, said if the community did open one it would have to be in conjunction with another entity, whether it be Valparaiso University, the Valparaiso public schools, the YMCA or a private donor. In addition to discussions with those groups about a pool, Seibert said they also are considering larger or more splash pads.

Merrillville Park Director Jan Orlich was earlier involved in building splash pads at Wicker Memorial Park in Highland and in Michigan City. Wicker Park used to have a community pool, but the North Township Advisory Board shut it down in 1988, citing the need for costly repairs and maintenance.

Orlich said splash parks are becoming more popular because they don't require a lifeguard and, depending on the system, the water can be recyclable.

"In my estimation, (municipal) pools are becoming dinosaurs," she said. "They are not cost effective."

Maintenance costs aside, there is the expense of chemically treating the water, bringing the pool into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act and paying lifeguards, Orlich said.

Still an attraction for many

While the number of municipal pools has dropped, many still believe they are an important asset for the community to maintain.

Hobart Park Superintendent John Mitchell considers the pool a quality of life amenity for the community, not different from a playground. 

In addition to providing recreation to a few hundred people a day during the summer, Mitchell said the pool also provides employment to young Hobart residents as lifeguards.

Mitchell said the pool draws users from all over the area.

Crown Point's Hub Pool, at 1000 E. South St., built in the 1960s, attracts residents and nonresidents and, depending on the weather, can reach capacity of 500 people, according to Parks Administrator Jennie Burgess. She said in a typical summer, the community sells about 100 family and individual pool passes.

While Gary is down to two pools, Dilworth sees them staying open for the foreseeable future as the city builds up its aquatic programming. East Chicago is down to two pools from a high of seven, but the remaining pools at Washington Park at East 144th Street and Grand Boulevard and at Kosciusko Park, at West 151st Street and Indianapolis Boulevard, are seen as a positive quality of life amenity for residents, according to East Chicago spokesman Steve Segura.

Two of the more well-known pools in the Region offer much more than just a box-like pool.

Lake County's Deep River Waterpark advertises dozens of rides at its facility in Merrillville off of U.S. 30 while the Munster Community Pool in the 8800 block of Calumet Avenue also has slides plus a child play area, splash and spray amenities and a concession stand among other features.

Greg Vitale, director of parks and recreation for Munster, said demand for the Munster pool is still high. According to the 17-year veteran of the field, the demand for pools with such amenities as Munster's and Lake County's is consistent.

The demand for the basic box-type pools of the 1960s, '70s and '80s, however, has been dropping for years.

"Unfortunately, closing pools is the norm lately," Vitale said. "I learn about more and more examples of this every year."

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Ed has been with The Times since January 2014. He previously covered government affairs for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers in Florida. Prior to Scripps, he was with the Chicago Regional Bureau of Copley News Service.