‘Out to dry’: Natatorium — Manhattan’s only indoor pool — closes permanently

According to the closure announcement in K-State Today, a community group is currently exploring ways to cater to Manhattan's swim community. (Archive Photo | Collegian Media Group)

Kansas State permanently closed the Natatorium’s indoor swimming area because of maintenance and funding issues.

Manhattan’s only indoor swimming facility was initially closed in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic led to multiple campus closures, but the decision to permanently close the Natatorium had many factors.

According to an announcement in K-State Today, “limited maintenance budgets and a priority of supporting academic programs” made reallocating funds to the necessary upkeep of the Natatorium unrealistic.

“I’m not a scientist, but there were definitely air quality and circulation issues in there,” Steve Martini, director of Recreational Services, said. “We have some new buildings with good air quality systems, and we have some older ones that aren’t as good. The pool itself was opened in 1975, so it’s not as old as Ahearn, but 45 years is a relatively long period of time for a pool to remain usable.”

Recreational Services, UFM, Manhattan High School and the Manhattan Marlins Swim Team used the indoor facility regularly. Representatives from each of these groups contributed to conversations surrounding the closure, Martini said.

“There was a discussion of the users — us — who have knowledge of the daily issues of the pool … and then the next level of administration is the one who makes final decisions about building structures and things like that,” Martini said. “The decision wasn’t made by Rec Services single-handedly.”

The largest factor in the closure, cited by both K-State Today and Martini, was the budget. Martini said the estimated cost to build a pool within the Peters Recreation Complex would be $25-30 million.

“These are not great financial times to be putting out that much money, and the financial return on a pool is not in the positives,” Martini said. “You’re operating in the red most of the time, and with the financial situation of the university due to the pandemic, there are budget issues all over the place.”

Given the financial stress the pandemic placed on students and the university, Martini said the administration didn’t want to reach into students’ Privilege Fees to fund maintenance or a new facility.

Prior users of the Natatorium received membership refunds or memberships to the Peters Recreation Complex.

“We tried to make it right for everybody, but it’s been a tough situation,” Martini said.

The Natatorium previously served as the practice facility for K-State’s Swim and Dive Club.

Because of the closure, the team relocated its practices to the Wamego Aquatic Center at the beginning of the fall semester. The 25-minute drive — plus carpool organization — forced the team to cut its number of weekly practices from 4 to 2.

Jake Willenbring, junior in business and political science and vice president of the Swim and Dive Club, said he and his teammates are upset with how the Natatorium situation developed.

“It’s embarrassing that we don’t have [a pool] now since the older facility wasn’t kept as well as it should have been,” Willenbring said.

The Wamego Aquatic Center lacks diving boards, so Willenbring said the “Dive” component of the Swim and Dive Club is currently nonexistent.

Keith Birnbaum, junior in secondary education, previously used the Natatorium as both a member of the Swim and Dive Club and Manhattan High School’s assistant swim coach.

Birnbaum said his students at Manhattan High go to Wamego daily for practice, but that can only continue for so long.

“It’s not very sustainable to drive and it takes away from the swimming,” Birnbaum said. “It’s a really hard spot.”

Until other facility options become available, Willenbring said the Swim and Dive Club’s plan is to continue as it has since the fall. The team’s out-of-water activities allow members to maintain a sense of community without as much practice time in the pool.

“We’re hoping that the K-State and Manhattan community can come together to build a new pool that would be helpful not just for us, but for the community as a whole,” Willenbring said.

At this point, because of the constricted budget, there are no plans to build a new indoor swimming facility at K-State.

“If someday that changes, or there was a donor … then, that might be something that could occur again,” Martini said.

Birnbaum said while he understands the reasons behind the Natatorium’s closure, his biggest grievance is the lack of alternatives provided by K-State and the Manhattan community.

“They’re just leaving the entire Manhattan swim community out to dry,” he said. “I just wish they would’ve had more of a plan in place to tend to the swimming community after the pool, and I think that’s where they failed.”

One possibility Birnbaum looked forward to was the building of Genesis Health Club on the West side of town, but after some discussion, he said that option seems less viable.

“I’ve talked with [Genesis] and learned that they don’t seem to be friendly to the swimming community and only plan to open their pool to paying members, no rentals,” Birnbaum said. “I don’t think that would be very viable for the high school to pay for every single kid to go there, so we just don’t know what to do.”

According to the closure announcement in K-State Today, a community group is currently exploring ways to cater to Manhattan’s swim community.

Birnbaum said one option the group brought up is putting a dome over Cico Pool, but no plans are definite.