Bexley school board willing to test waters on indoor pool idea

Some Bexley residents with deep pockets are offering donations toward the construction of an indoor pool for the school district, and the school board is at least willing to wade into initial discussions about the project.

"It shouldn’t be rejected out of hand," board Vice President Andy Sutter said Oct. 15 of the proposed donations for a natatorium. "We want to encourage as many big ideas as possible, with the understanding that resources are limited."

Last month Superintendent Michael Johnson received a letter from Michael Stickney, a 1975 Bexley High graduate and former swim team captain, offering a $500,000 donation toward the construction of a natatorium.

Stickney is the owner of North Step Realty, with holdings largely in the Ohio State campus area, and lives in Old Arlington. He has previously endowed an OSU scholarship for students studying realty, in the name of his great-great-grandfather, an OSU trustee in the 1800s.

The alumnus recalled that his time on the swim team gave him "a great amount of self-esteem, discipline, competitive spirit, physical fitness and …long lasting friendships."

Stickney reported that he had opened a charitable foundation through the Columbus Foundation for the project, and said he had contacted other alumni who were willing to jump into the effort.

Bexley swim team members use the pool at St. Charles Preparatory School for practices.

Johnson brought the proposal to the board to determine if there was any interest in moving forward.

The superintendent was clear that the initiative would have to be led by members of the community, with the permission of the school board.

To make such a project a reality, the first thing the district would need would be more space, Johnson pointed out.

While most high schools alone sit on 30 to 40 acres, Bexley’s three school complexes occupy only 14 acres, he noted.

One possibility that has been floated for additional land is the former Woodland Meadows property in Columbus, Johnson said. Demolition of the apartments north of Broad Street has recently been completed.

Sutter commented that this land that is available now may not be available in six months or a year, giving the project some sense of urgency.

Stickney did not attend the meeting, but when contacted at his office, he said he wanted to see the natatorium built on the main high school campus, so that it would benefit the entire physical-education program and the community.

"It could change the whole complexion of the athletic department," Stickney envisioned.

The donor said he didn’t think he’d have difficulty raising money in the seven-figure range once he fully spelled out the proposal. He estimates that the cost of construction would be around $2.5 million.

When district officials were studying facility needs 10 years ago, the cost of a natatorium was estimated at $2.5 million, Sutter recalled.

There wasn’t support for such a project at that time, he added.

Johnson said that athletic boosters have been critical of the district’s facilities, in comparison with neighboring schools.

While acknowledging the generosity of the offer, board member Steve Grossman likened it to "giving a St. Bernard dog to a poor family" with a small house, and said he would like to hear a detailed plan before taking the plunge.

Board President Diane Peterson agreed that the potential purchase of a large piece of land would require public input and debate. It should also be clear that this is not a school board initiative, Peterson said.

Board member Joan Fishel suggested that Bexley and Columbus city officials will want to be part of the discussion, as well.

The district shouldn’t be so afraid of getting in over its head that they aren’t willing to talk about it, Sutter insisted.

"We should be looking for ways to make it happen," he said. "You don’t have a successful idea until you have a pool of ideas to draw from. We want to stoke that kind of enthusiasm."

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