Many Keene residents were disappointed to learn the public pool at Robin Hood Park would remain closed this summer. But through an arrangement with a local bus service, city staff have worked to ensure people living in East Keene without reliable transportation still have access to a pool.
The city reached out to City Express to make it easier for people to get to Wheelock Park, which still has an open pool, in West Keene, said Parks, Recreation and Facilities Director Andy Bohannon during a meeting of the City Council’s Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure Committee last week.
He said the bus service, which is run by Home Healthcare, Hospice & Community Services, has been offering free rides to and from the pool since late June. The city will reimburse the Keene-based nonprofit for that service.
“Any individual who wants to go to Wheelock pool can pick up the City Express anywhere along the route,” Bohannon said during the meeting. “They will receive a voucher. They will not have to pay; it will be a free service. At the end of the month, City Express will indicate to us how many riders they had, and we will take care of that cost for them.”
This year, the Robin Hood Park pool is closed due to a shortage of qualified lifeguards, Bohannon explained during the meeting. He noted that the city has only one person with experience teaching swimming lessons, and said earlier this year that the city had found enough lifeguards to staff only one pool at a time.
Keene usually hires about 17 lifeguards for its pools at Robin Hood and Wheelock parks but has encountered difficulty with recruitment over the past several years. Back in mid-May, Bohannon said Keene had hired 11 lifeguards for the 2021 season, which he said was enough to staff one of the pools.
The American Lifeguard Association says a nationwide lifeguard shortage was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused class cancellations and limited the number of college and foreign-exchange students looking for lifeguarding work. Along with high-schoolers, these students typically make up a good portion of the applicant pool.
Bohannon also noted that the city has been planning a construction project at Robin Hood Park pool, which it plans to start while the pool is closed. He said that work is expected to kick off at the end of July.
Charlie Pratt, transportation director for Home Healthcare, Hospice & Community Services, said Wheelock Park, on Park Avenue, is known as a “flag stop.” This means that the buses don’t automatically stop there, but both bus routes pass by it, and anyone aboard can ask to get off there.
Anyone getting on the bus in East Keene can ask to be dropped off at the park, he said, and the driver will not charge a fare. While he said the goal is to cater specifically to people in East Keene who would normally go to the Robin Hood Park pool, located near the east end of Roxbury Street, Pratt said the offer is open to everyone.
The arrangement will continue for “the rest of the summer until the pool closes,” Pratt said.
Typically, each ride on the City Express costs a dollar. Buses run along two fixed routes from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays. A route map can be found online at www.hcsservices.org.
Since the city announced last month that the Robin Hood Park pool would remain closed, some East Keene residents have lamented their diminished access to a public pool, particularly with the pool in West Keene staying open.
Roxbury Street resident John Hayes took these concerns to the MSFI Committee last week, when he urged councilors to consider reopening the pool. Hayes, who also wrote a letter to the editor in The Sentinel about the pool, said he recognizes the challenges the parks and recreation department is facing, but suggested splitting the time of the city’s pool employees between the two facilities to ensure children on the east side of the city have the same opportunities as those on the west.
“The plan I propose is very simple,” he said. “It’s three or four days of Robin Hood pool being open ... for swim lessons and recreational swimming and three or four days of Wheelock pool being open for swim lessons and recreational swimming. That way we can share the resources in a way that is fair to everyone.”
He added that the swimming season is short, and the construction work planned at Robin Hood Park pool could easily be pushed back a bit to accommodate swim lessons.
Bohannon said during the meeting that even if the city was prepared to open and staff the pool at Robin Hood Park, it would take until at least Aug. 1 to get it ready for swimmers. The season ends Aug. 19, he added.
“That’s three weeks of operations,” he said. “To me, as a manager, as a director, I’m not sure three weeks of operations is what you’re looking for.”