MHK Aquatics seeks to build indoor aquatics center in Manhattan

Kansas State permanently closed the indoor swimming facility in the Natatorium. The pool facility was closed in March 2020 because of pandemic-related ventilation issues. (Dylan Connell | Collegian Media Group)

Since the Kansas State Natatorium permanently closed in spring 2021 because of maintenance and funding issues — after already being closed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic — Manhattan has been without a public indoor aquatics center.

John Balman, who calls himself the self-appointed catalyst of Manhattan Aquatics, said the organization is trying to change that.

“The MHK Aquatics group is really just a loose-knit group of Manhattan residents that all share the same goal of wanting to see an indoor aquatics center here,” Balman said.

Balman said his inspiration for the project also stems from his late son, Wyatt.

“The bottom line is that Wyatt loved swimming and the health & wellness benefits that it afforded,” Balman wrote in an email to the Collegian. “He motivated his family to pursue swimming, and I want MHK residents to have the same opportunity to experience the love of swimming [year-round].”

Balman said only 22 cities nationwide, similar to Manhattan in size and economy, do not have a public aquatics center.

“That’s less than one percent of the cities our size nationwide,” Balman said. “Most people fully agree that, of course, a city our size needs something like that for our quality of life.”

Balman said the number of people who applied to be part of the aquatics center steering committee shows the community supports the idea. When the City Commission opened up applications, 117 people applied, and the Commission had to narrow the group down to 15 people.

“That was an overwhelming response just for the community of how many people wanted to dedicate their time and effort to try to see this move forward,” Balman said. “I don’t think the city had ever seen that level of volunteerism for a steering committee for any project.”

Along with the steering committee’s work, Balman said Anderson Knight Architects of Manhattan is working with a pool construction company to develop a feasibility plan for the aquatics center.

The plan will include potential locations and costs for the center that the City Commission will review.

“What we’re looking for is simply that the City Commission sees that it is feasible if we can find a funding mechanism,” Balman said. “So that’s what I would expect the Commission to do next, would be to task our city officials with finding some options for funding mechanisms because there’s overwhelming support.”

While the City Commission still must review the feasibility plan, Balman said he believes funding from multiple sources will be the best option.

“I don’t 100 percent support this being just a taxation funding mechanism,” Balman said. “The City Commission has expressed the value of partnering with private individuals, the university and USD [383].”

Balman said the plan would also include what might be at the aquatics center— possibilities include therapeutic pools, swim lanes and recreational areas, among other components.

Though the feasibility plan is in the draft stage, Sofia Leal, senior in marketing, said the aquatic center would be a positive for the community.

“It’s really nice to think that future generations will have that facility to use for either their own uses when it comes to sports, or they want to have a mental health break,” Leal said. “If it’s open to everyone and everyone is able to access it: even better.”

Isaiah Wilson, sophomore in personal financial accounting, said it would be a good place for family outings.

“Families can bring their kids there and hang out,” Wilson said. “We don’t have anything like that, so it’d be a good addition.”

Balman said that Manhattan is growing, and an aquatic center would help its residents’ quality of life increase.

“[Manhattan] really is somewhat of a hidden gem,” Balman said. “So if we can tap into that enthusiasm and that inevitability, in my opinion, that it is going to grow, how do we want it to grow?”

More information about the project is available through the MHK Aquatics website or by following them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.