Residents rev up campaign to save park pool

Published 3:40 pm Monday, May 1, 2023

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By Angela Cutrer
Star Correspondent

The residents of Roan Mountain take great pride in their state pool at Roan Mountain State Park. In addition to cooling off locals, the pool was a great reason for visitors to pull into that particular state park. After all, it was but one of few located in the state.

Most of Tennessee state park pools were open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, with lifeguards present during swimming hours. The pools were not only used for exercise or sport – many a birthday party or a summer gathering happened there as well.

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When the pool was closed in 2020 due to the pandemic, the citizenry understood. After all, it would just be a temporary inconvenience for the sake of keeping people safe.

And once the COVID-19 threat had passed (pretty much), it was with great anticipation that the Roan Mountain community awaited the pool to reopen.

However, it never did.

Now those on Roan Mountain know why: The state plans to keep it closed for good, along with 10 others.

“Eleven swimming pools will not reopen as of Summer 2022,” said a December 2021 statement still on the Tennessee State Park website. “Those pools include Roan Mountain, Warriors’ Path, Panther Creek, Cove Lake, Booker T. Washington, Harrison Bay, David Crockett, David Crockett Birthplace, Norris Dam, Paris Landing and Tims Ford.

“The swimming pools at those parks were closed in 2020 and 2021 due to complications related to COVID-19. Reopening the pools is unfeasible due to aging facilities, declining visitation pre-COVID-19, and high expenses. Tennessee State Parks has allocated funding for each park to invest in new outdoor recreation activities at each park where a pool is not reopening.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, the website continued by stating the following: “During … public meetings, Tennessee State Parks was excited to hear the optimism and excitement from communities about the future of their parks and their ideas for pool replacement projects. We are carefully considering the public’s replacement project ideas while identifying the appropriate state approval protocols we need to follow in order to bring replacement projects to fruition. We look forward to sharing details of the projects in the near future.”

This was about the last straw: It was devastating enough to close the Roan Mountain pool at all and then for good, but then to imply that residents were optimistic and excited about possible replacements of their state park pool was a slap in the face.

“We feel like we aren’t being heard – obviously,” said Ann Morgan Campbell of the Roan Mountain Citizens Club. “The park’s mission statement is ‘to serve the community,’ so how does closing the pool serve that community?”

Campbell said that there are 30 cabins and a campground at Roan Mountain State Park and there is no other water feature there to entice visitors. “That pool is used by both the community and visitors,” Campbell said. “It was a great job opportunity for young people in this community, which is just a small place that doesn’t have much.

“The community needs that pool. This is not a high-income community and not having that pool is devastating.”

Campbell is not alone in her campaign to get the government of Tennessee to hear the community’s plea for reopening the pool. Yard signs show support for the pool in the community, parents talk on social media about how their kids are missing out and schools are helping their students deal with the fall out.

It was just a week ago that the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) announced that 32 of the 57 Tennessee state parks had attained “Platinum status,” the highest level of achievement, in the department’s Go Green With Us program.

Roan Mountain State Park was one of the 32 that worked hard to work on environmental protection and to cut waste. They worked so hard, they were awarded the Platinum status two years in a row.

In a news release about the achievement, Greer Tidwell, deputy commissioner for TDEC’s Bureau of Parks and Conservation, said, “Our state parks are setting an example for environmental protection, and we are glad to see them recognized in this way. These parks have worked hard and deserve this recognition. It is one more way to show TDEC’s commitment to stewarding our precious natural resources, and our park visitors deserve no less.”

Roan Mountain citizens seemed to agree; they think park visitors to Roan Mountain State Park deserve to get what their tax dollars paid for, and an existing pool seemed to be a big draw.

But on Dec. 6, 2021, Tennessee State Parks announced reopenings of several pools, as well as sending out a press release about the ones not reopening. Five swimming pools – David Crockett Birthplace State Park, Roan Mountain State Park, Warriors’ Path State Park, Panther Creek State Park and Cove Lake State Park – would not reopen due to “complications related to COVID-19. Reopening the pools is unfeasible due to aging facilities, declining visitation pre-COVID-19 and high expenses. Tennessee State Parks has allocated $400,000 for each park to invest in new outdoor recreation activities.”

Jim Bryson, deputy commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, said in the release that “the swimming pools at these parks require major maintenance upgrades while usage continues to decline. We believe it is unfair to Tennessee taxpayers for the state to continue to invest in these swimming pools with rising costs and declining visitation.

“Fortunately, the Tennessee General Assembly has been very supportive of the parks in recent years, which has allowed us to allocate funding for options that are more fiscally responsible to taxpayers and that visitors can enjoy year-round.”

The funds for each park amounts to $400,000 per park, which the government wants to use on options that can be used “throughout the year. Swimming pools, in contrast, operate only 70 days each year,” the statement read as it related each pool’s faults:
* At David Crockett Birthplace State Park, the pool is 46 years old, and visitation is down.
* At Roan Mountain State Park, the pool is 41 years old, and visitation is down.
* At Warriors’ Path State Park, the pool is 59 years old, visitation is down, a public pool exists nearby, and swimming in the lake is available.
* At Panther Creek State Park, the pool is 36 years old, visitation is down, lake swimming opportunities exist, and a public splash pad is five miles away.
* At Cove Lake State Park, the pool is 72 years old, and visitation is down.

Roan Mountain residents were invited to a Dec. 14, 2021 meeting at the park to discuss what they wanted the pool replaced with. In a nutshell, what do they want to spend their $400,000 allotment on?

According to Campbell, residents want the pool fixed and reopened, period. “We are in a campaign to save the pool,” she said. “We’re having meetings and we have 4,000 signatures from locals in support of the pool. We have local signs for yards and a 4- by 20-foot banner right next to the park sign.”

Even school children got on the bandwagon. At Valley Forge Elementary, children put their art skills to work to show how they felt about the park pool. Last Friday, second graders used social studies and writing time to learn about “how community members can work to appeal to political leaders to express concerns within their community. Students completed a class survey, wrote letters and drew pictures to explain why they feel it is important for the Roan Mountain pool to remain open,” a Facebook post stated.

One letter read as follows: “The children in this rural community need a healthy, outdoor plas to play. The Pool is a great way for us to spend quality time with our famiyles and make a bunch of happy memories. The park pool hase closed since I was 3. Pleas reopen so I can have fun there like my [sibling] did. We can help the bees in our area by practicing No Mow May by not picking flowers on the playground and our yards. Please reopen the pool, bees are important but we are the future!”

Other letters discussed kids needing a place to cool off, how campers spend money at local businesses and how much the children appreciate having so close a place to swim.

No one knows if all this activity can actually save the pool, but supporters won’t give up. Anyone wanting a yard sign is asked to contact supporters on Facebook.

(Editor’s note: We were unable to document if visitation was down at these parks before the pandemic closures. The child’s letter was replicated exactly.)