The Port Fairy community has rallied around the embattled Belfast Aquatics leisure centre, launching a "Save our pool" petition as the facility searches frantically for a new insurer.
The petition, hosted on the change.org website, had garnered more than 500 signatures at the time of writing.
It called the facility a "vital and fundamental" part of the community that many in Port Fairy and beyond rely upon.
"Our valued members rely on our beautiful pool and gym for their physical, mental and emotional health. Each year, Belfast Aquatics also teaches hundreds of children how to swim and survive. Belfast Aquatics is at risk of closing its doors. We need your help."
Hundreds of people shared testimonials about the importance of the facility in their own lives and for their friends and family.
"The positive change in my life has been profound and I can state categorically that Belfast Aquatics has enabled me to enjoy opportunities that would have otherwise been totally unattainable," Andrea Shaw-Besford said.
Teresa O'Brien agreed. "This pool is such an important part of our community. I use it for water therapy three times a week and it is used by so many people for rehabilitation, fitness and recreation," she said.
The centre has periodically courted controversy because of the funding it has received from Moyne Shire Council over its history, with councillors split along geographical lines on whether to maintain its $150,000 annual subsidy.
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But president of the Belfast Aquatics committee of management, Anne McIlroy, said the centre was "more than just a pool and gym".
"For many of the members and casual users it's a social hub. A lot of them come from out of town and it's a way for them to connect with people," she said.
The centre has 231 full-time members, another 144 regular users with multi-pass tickets, and more than 300 children aged from 12 months to 12 years are enrolled in the learn to swim program. It also has hundreds of casual users, with 549 people buying single admission tickets since the start of March.
Ms McIlroy said one in five members lived outside Port Fairy while 30 per cent of learn to swim families were from elsewhere. She said the figures showed the importance of Belfast Aquatics beyond Port Fairy.
I can state categorically that Belfast Aquatics has enabled me to enjoy opportunities that would have otherwise been totally unattainable- Andrea Shaw-Besford
"Then we have at least four rehab classes a week in the gym. We have disabled people coming across from Warrnambool to use the pool," Ms McIlroy said.
"Our weekly aqua aerobics class has 36 older women in it, many of them coming from out of town, and I know for many of them it's about the social occasion as much as the exercise."
The petition was started by Belfast Aquatics members and is certain to raise pressure on Moyne Shire Council to find a solution to the insurance issue.
The Standard understands the centre's risk management and governance have been raised as issues requiring attention before a new insurer is likely to consider providing cover.
The council has provided a specialist consultant to help Belfast Aquatics review its risk assessments. The centre has another few weeks before the last-minute extension to its current policy expires.
Outgoing council chief executive Bill Millard has consistently said the "best and quickest" solution would be for the centre to find a new insurer and remain a community-run facility.
While the council provides at least $150,000 a year to Belfast Aquatics - offset by a levy on council-run caravan parks - to defray its running costs, the centre is run on a shoestring.
If the centre failed to find an insurer, council would be left with the choice of taking over the facility and its management, or letting it shut. But the cost of taking it over would amount to much more than $150,000 a year, even ignoring the major renovations council would have to undertake to bring the facility up to scratch.
At that point the caravan park levy would no longer cover the facility's costs and councillors would have to decide whether ratepayers should foot the bill.
When local community members approached council in the mid-2000s with the idea for a Port Fairy pool, council presented an analysis showing a year-round facility couldn't be supported in such a small town. The group wasn't perturbed and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to build the facility.
The council agreed to provide a $400,000 contribution to the construction costs on the condition the group never asked for any further funding.
Since that date the council has given Belfast Aquatics more than $1.8 million in funding, most of it raised by the levy. It has also become increasingly involved in the financial management of the centre, requiring regular financial updates and sending a council officer to meetings of Belfast Aquatics' committee of management.
It would be a substantial decision for the council to take over the facility, but the community response has already shown it would be equally significant to let it sink.
The petition doesn't specify or call for any particular action, but many comments left by the signees seemed to appeal to the council to keep the centre open.
"An extremely valuable asset to so many in our community and beyond. Health & wellbeing is so important and this facility plays an enormous role in educating and supporting people of all ages in this town. Please do not close down such a vital resource!" Lisa Graham said.
"This a beautiful pool, with disabled access, friendly staff and a great gym. Why close such an asset??" Catriona Ross said.
Graham Rulyancich was more direct.
"It may seem like a hole in the pocket for the local government but they have to weigh up the health benefit the facility town has for the locals. The facility gives locals a place to conduct therapy and keep actively fit healthy," he said.
"Especially with an older demographic. If the money is not spent on the fitness facility it will be spent on increased demand on health services. It's worth more than its budgeted paper value. Please keep this facility open."
"Closing places like this is crazy," Brad Diviny said. "I'm sure some pencil pusher will justify it somehow, but people are far more important than that."
Any decision to take over the centre would be in the hands of Moyne Shire councillors, rather than council officers.
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