"This is a regional problem. We need a regional solution."

"This is a regional problem. We need a regional solution."

— Dennis Francois, Southern Oregon University athletic director

The problem? Southern Oregon University is facing budget cuts and can no longer afford to keep its aquatic facility open and available as a regional swimming venue. After many discussions with the faculty at SOU, they have agreed to negotiate with the user groups on proposed costs for the upcoming year. SOU has asked for funding — specifically, $87,000 for operating costs and $25,000 emergency funding.

What this means is that the community must fund this vital aquatics facility. Or it closes. SOU currently does not have organized aquatic sports.

This aquatics facility is an economic asset. One swim meet attracts 300 - 500 swimmers who contribute to our local economy. 2001 U.S. swimming statistics show for each swimmer (and adding .5 family members), during the Shakespeare Invitational three-day meet brings nearly $35,000 a day to our local economy. Water polo tournaments and swim meets throughout their seasons also plunge thousands of dollars into the local economy.

Add to that multiple smaller swim meets and water polo tournaments run by the high schools during their sports seasons.

The loss of this pool represents the loss of the growing and thriving aquatics programs in the area. A nonprofit group, the Aquatics Foundation of Southern Oregon, represents pool user groups including water polo players and competitive swimmers at Ashland High School, Crater High School, Eagle Point High School, North and South Medford, and Phoenix High School. Also depending on this aquatics complex are community groups the Rogue Valley Masters, the Southern Oregon Masters and the Southern Oregon Water Polo teams. The Superior Stingray Swimmers, a merging of public and private teams, is 125 young swimmers strong. These programs are creating some excellent athletes and providing a healthy, fun team experience for many youth.

We are at risk of losing all of these programs.

The pool at SOU was built as a competitive facility, which means it is the only pool in the region to hold meets and tournaments. We are all working together to raise awareness and raise funds to support aquatics activities and facilities throughout the area. Urgently, we need to keep the SOU pool open. It's slated to close on June 30.

The cost of keeping the pool open will have to be borne by the user groups. SOU is working with user groups to establish hours of usage, then to divide it by the facility's operating cost. It is likely the hourly rate will be higher than what most user groups, particularly school districts, will be able to afford. Pools in operation throughout the state are heavily subsidized. We need the community to fill in this gap. But we won't know for sure until negotiations are completed, within the next few weeks.

Our goal is to raise enough money — at least $20,000 — to supplement the user group operating fees so the valley's swimmers and water polo players can use this regional aquatics facility.

By doing this, we can reduce the per-hour cost to school districts and other competitive water sports user groups.

In doing so, we allow competitive swim programs and major regional swim events to continue in this valley until an aquatics center is built as planned in Medford in approximately five years.

Without this pool, competitive swimming ends in the Rogue Valley for lack of a competition-regulation pool.

So far, we have raised $2,000 and are sponsoring a number of fundraising events with user groups, businesses and community members throughout the valley: From 9 a.m.-3 p.m. June 1-3, the Save Southern Oregon Aquatics Swim Meet at the SOU pool; From 9 a.m.-3 p.m. June 2, a Save Aquatics Auction at SOU on Ashland Boulevard, featuring items from Olympian Natalie Coughlin and many other exciting local offerings; and at 9 p.m. June 9, Standing Stone Brewery will hold a benefit dance with Jerry Attrick & The Pacemakers ($10 donation).

Cyndi Mathews is executive director of the Aquatics Foundation of Southern Oregon, a nonprofit organization formed to support competitive swimming in the Rogue Valley. Contact the organization at Save.Aquatics@yahoo.com, or on the Web at www.southernoregonswim.org.