So it’s been more than a few weeks since the Columbia Association Aquatics Department kicked off its Master Planning Process (http://www.columbiaassociation.com/aquaticsmasterplan/), and to be frank, there is something about the numbers presented that have been bothering me. The first thing that put me on the path of unbelievably ridiculous research was a slide that CA put up during their master planning workshops. The slide (pdf – Slide 18) entitled “How Much Does it Cost?” detailed the capital costs of pools over the lifetime of Columbia. The first pool listed is the Bryant Woods Pool. It was built in 1968 for a cost of $41,000. The last pool on the list is River Hill Pool. It was built in 1995 for a cost of $1.2M.
The implication was that the cost to construct pools has increased dramatically over the years. I had a problem with this for several reasons. First, the Bryant Woods Pool is a six-lane, rectangular pool with (by today’s standards) an undersized diving well and an adjacent wading (baby) pool. The hot tub at Bryant Woods was part of an upgrade and built in the 1980’s. The River Hill Pool is an eight-lane pool with beach entry, the site also includes a spray structure in the beach entry area, a snack bar, shade structures, a beach volleyball court and hot tub. Even the baby pool has a spray mushroom. By comparison, I believe that both the men’s and women’s bath house at Bryant Woods could fit inside a single side (sex) of the River Hill bath house. In other words, it is difficult to compare a base model 1968 Dodge Dart, with bias tires, lap seat belts, drum brakes, no air-conditioning and AM radio with a top-of-the-line Lexus; with anti-lock brakes, airbags, multi-disc CD player, leather all-around, sunroof, and thousands of goodies at the high end.
Secondly, it occurred to me during the public workshop meeting that when the Bryant Woods Pool was constructed in 1968 for $41,000, the houses surrounding the pool were selling for about $27,000 (admittedly some more, some less). When the River Hill Pool was constructed in 1995 for $1.2M, the houses in River Hill were selling for about $500,000 (admittedly, some more, some less). From this point of view, it appears that pool construction costs have gone up, but have roughly remained at pace with the cost of constructing houses (and yes, like the BW v. RH pool scenario, there are dissimilarities in the housing stock amenities, but they do trend with the type of pool in each neighborhood. In other words, if a house of the style found in Bryant Woods was built in River Hill, it would cost less; however, if the pool in River Hill was a rectangular pool without the bells and whistles, it would cost less too).
Lastly, and this is where CA could be most helpful, it would be beneficial to understand how much of the capital budget the Bryant Woods Pool consumed in 1968 and how much of the capital budget the River Hill Pool consumed in 1995. CA would have to provide the numbers, but given the number of lien payers in 1968 (approx 2,000) v. 1995 (> 76,000) (and the resultant $0.75 per hundreds assessed paid), I believe the River Hill Pool constituted a smaller portion of the capital budget than the Bryant Woods Pool.
For the reasons stated above, I think CA Aquatics was a little misleading about “How much it costs.”
Hey! We’re (Still) Here!
Another set of data that didn’t seem quite right to me can be found on the Columbia Association – Aquatics Master Plan web page. Under the title “Existing Conditions and Trends,” the following passage can be found:
Built and upgraded over 40 years, Columbia's inventory of aquatics facilities are aging and require investment to continue to offer programs and amenities that meet user expectations.
At the same time, Columbia's demographic trends show that our population is aging - the median age today is almost 40 years old, whereas it was 32 in 1990. In addition, residents in their prime child-rearing years (aged 21 to 54) have decreased as a proportion of the population from almost one-half of the population in 1990 to one-third of the population today.
To understand and respond to these and other trends, the Columbia Association is undertaking a master plan to set the framework for future capital investments and programs to keep our aquatics program strong and to make sure investments are made wisely.
The above paragraphs paint a pretty dramatic picture. It portrays Columbia, broadly speaking, as getting older. To an extent, this is true. I checked the median age numbers at the U.S. Census and they are correct. The median age in Columbia is increasing.
What is troubling is the second piece of data: “In addition, residents in their prime child-rearing years (aged 21 to 54) have decreased as a proportion of the population from almost one-half of the population in 1990 to one-third of the population today.” To be kind, this is a 100% factually untrue statement.
I looked up the Columbia demographic data over at the United States Census webpage; first the 1990 and 2000 decennial Census data, and then the data from the 2009 American Community Survey. Note: The 2009 American Community Survey is an estimate conducted by the US Census Bureau. The 2010 Census decennial demographic data (say that five times fast) has not been released for Maryland. It is expected to be released within the next two weeks.
As shown below, the 1990 Census data indicates people aged 21-54 made up 60% (not 50%) of the population. Over the last 20 years, this age cohort has seen a decline to 50% (estimate) of the population. This 10% decline over 20 years is a much slower rate than the 17% decline offered by the Columbia Association Aquatics Department.
What is most interesting about the Columbia demographic data is that yes, as a proportion of the total population, those aged 21-54 have seen a decline; however, for twenty years the total number of people has remained remarkably constant. The realization for the Columbia Association isn’t that 45,495 people in 1990 constituted 60% of the population or that 45,236 (estimate) in 2009 constituted 50% of the population. What is most important is that 45,000 people, most likely lien payers and membership owners don’t take kindly to being marginalized by some “fuzzy numbers.”
Taken at face value, the (factually incorrect) demographics above paint one picture, but they do not reveal the total picture. I am very concerned that CA is approaching this based on proportionality. I think it is wrongheaded thinking. It whispers “divide and conquer.” This position is similar to the “how much does it cost” statement by CA above.
Most other institutions do not use the proportionality argument. Hypothetically, if eighty kids need to be bused to a local elementary school, the public school system provides buses for them. If at some time in the future there becomes a dramatic increase in need for busing at the high school level, but eighty kids still need to be bused to the elementary school, the school system provides more buses. They don’t say to the elementary school parents, “you know, as a proportion of the total bus rider population, the elementary school kids have declined, so we’re going to cut off their service to the elementary school.”
Now is the time for the Columbia Association to get back on the right track. It is time for the Columbia Association to commit, loudly and clearly, to providing (at a minimum) the amenities and services that were available over the last twenty years because the population that wants these services has not changed over the last twenty years. The Columbia Association should also embrace the change that comes with a growing senior population, but not at the expense of others in the community.