Natatorium facing debt, extensive repairs

The Natatorium at IUPUI is losing money and falling apart.
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A premier sports venue where hundreds of world-class athletes have trained and competed over the years is swimming in debt.

The Natatorium at IUPUI, where Michael Phelps earned an Olympic spot this past summer - and where everyday Hoosiers swim, is losing money and falling apart.

The most recent study on the "Nat" found it needs nearly $18 million in repairs. On top of that, it's running a $1 million deficit, with utilities and regular maintenance costing another million or so a year.

But who pays to fix it? Who pays to keep it running? That's the question several groups are trying to answer out as the venue hits its 31-year mark this summer.

When it was built in 1982, the Natatorium was state-of-the-art. It was and continues to be the only permanent swimming facility with two 50-meter pools (plus the diving well and practice pool). It also continues to have the largest seating venue.

And while the Nat still draws top swimmers and still has more than 100 event days a year, it's also drawing attention for the wear and tear it's taken.

During a recent Big East Swimming and Diving competition, Rodney McGhee of Philadelphia said of the concourse area, "I was actually surprised to see it considering the history...The first thing I noticed were all the towels lined along the doorways."

Jeff Shaeffer, who lives near Harrisburg, Penn., was also taken aback by the row of towels and buckets, the peeling paint and water damage at the bottom of several walls.

"Because it's such an impressive facility, you expect all of it to be equally impressive," he said.

The wet floors are actually from condensation. It's what you can't see that's worrisome.

Tom Morrison, Vice President of Facilities for Indiana University, said while the Nat is still "structurally fine in terms of safety," it needs everything from a new roof and fire pump to new lighting and an HVAC system. It also needs money to help pay for those fixes.

Morrison said, "It's a difficult challenge, difficult for the university and difficult for the community."

The Nat was built in 1982 for events like the National Sports Festival and the Pan Am games. It was then given to the university, but Morrison said there was never a fund set up for ongoing maintenance and depreciation (typical for new buildings) so there is no money to fix it.

And, to this day, the Nat is used much more by the community than the campus.

"Unless we come up with other partners to try to fund it, we cannot put that on the backs of our students," Morrison said.

Deputy Mayor Deron Kintner agreed IU needs help in funding the repairs.

"There's an urgency from all sides to find a solution...because it's a valuable asset to the city and community," Kintner said. "It's an asset we don't own but one we benefit from." (Especially from the big events which draw out-of-town visitors who stay at Indianapolis hotels and eat at Indianapolis restaurants.)

Kintner said the mayor's office, the Indiana Sports Corporation, Indiana Swimming, Visit Indy and the Capital Improvement Board have been meeting with IU for more than a year, but $18 million is a lot of money to come up with.

One possibility that's been raised?

Getting the CIB, which runs the city's sports venues, including Lucas Oil Stadium and Bankers Life Fieldhouse, to share some of the revenue it takes in from hospitality taxes.

Kintner said, "It's certainly worthy of discussion, especially if you're looking at the lost revenue that would occur if the Nat were to close."

While Morrison insists that Nat is not in jeopardy of closing, he stresses, "We really need to start now, because there's exponential harm in waiting."

Not only does the damage get worse, but the tougher it is to draw big events, which Indiana Swimming's Arlene McDonald works hard to do.

"Because of its unique history, there's support for keeping the venue open and it's still very important, it's still a special place to come," McDonald said. "We're excited about the possibility of having a new renovated facility because we know that we could bring in a lot more events that benefit the city."

Morrison said it's his hope a funding plan can be worked out by year's end - not just to pay for the $18 million in repairs and eliminate the operating deficit, but to set up a depreciation fund for future needs.

He noted while the Nat cost $21 million to build, it would cost $75 million to replace.