The functionality of a facility

By Bill Felber

We have in our house several pieces of Delft pottery. I bought them a couple decades ago, during a visit to the Netherlands, and put them on the walls of our dining room and on bookshelves. In the intervening two decades, there has not been a single instance in which they have been used to hold anything. They are entirely decorative.

We also have a few pieces of fine glass serving vessels and vases, each of them inheritances my wife brought to the marriage 40 years ago. They, too, have occupied, undisturbed, a place in the house since then. A bit expensive, a bit rare, more than a bit unused.

As wedding gifts in 1973, we of course received a set of expensive china and gold-plated silverware. The china just occupies the cabinet, where it still looks very nice. If the president ever comes by, we’re ready. We keep the gold-plated silverware in an exquisite wooden hutch in the dining room, breaking it out for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The above is noted as a preface to one of my rules of life. It is this: To a surprising extent, there is an inverse relationship between what we pay for things and how much we use them. We have plenty of pots, plenty of dishes, plenty of silverware, all of it far less costly than the items noted above, and all of it far more frequently used. We keep the fancy stuff largely for ostentatious display.

The city pools close this week, a sore subject with many here, who note that school is still a few days off, Labor Day is a couple weeks distant and summer has more than a month to run.

Why are the pools closing? They are closing for a reason that is a variant of the principle noted above: They are too expensive to actually use.

Unlike Delft pottery, pools are of course used some. They’ve been open through the latter part of May, June and July, and although my hunch is business has been down some from last year, if I’m right that’s largely a function of the weather, which has been cooler, and not the pools themselves.

But the bottom line point holds. When plans for the pools were drawn up and approved by voters, several gaudy attractions —a lazy river, a couple of slides, a kids area, a bounce thing I can’t really describe and a pseudo surf ride — were prominently featured in the sales pitch. Each added to the cost, of course, but we didn’t care about that because other cities either had or were building them and it wouldn’t do for us to fall behind Salina in facilities. We knew and understood the more elaborate facility would cost more to construct and operate, but we didn’t care.

One element was not noted. That element was functionality. What we didn’t factor into the equation was that the inclusion of those areas would require the hiring of additional trained lifeguards, and that those trained lifeguards — largely college students — simply would not be available beyond mid-August. That meant we were buying and building something which, for about one-quarter of the logical season we could only stare at, but not use.

That’s not quite buying Wedgewood, Delft or Tiffany, but it’s in the same vein. It should have occurred to someone — me, for one — to ask at the time the pool plans were being debated what impact the addition of all these spiffy features would have on the city’s ability to actually operate the facility. But I did not, and for that I owe an apology to those for whom that information might have been important.

That does frame the question of whether prior knowledge would have made any difference? If the city had said at the time the pool bond issue was being debated, “we’re going to give you all this extra stuff, but the tradeoff is that you’ll lose several weeks off the length of the swimming season,” would anybody’s vote have been changed? Not necessarily. In the world of the Great Comeandgetit, we don’t cotton much to the prospect of accepting less when we are offered more. Only later when we discover that more of a facility means less time to use it do we regret our liberality, and possibly not even then. It’s at least plausible to speculate that faced with such a choice we would have done what three year olds do when they are confronted with the necessity of picking between two things, both of which they want. We might have picked one and then later demanded the other as well. In effect, that’s what we’ve done anyway.

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