Oller swim program corrects course

Verna Oller left a small fortune in hopes of helping Long Beach Peninsula people learn and enjoy swimming.

PENINSULA — It’s been a year since Verna Oller’s unique bequest made it possible for South Pacific County residents to swim for free. The arrangement has proven so popular that the managers of the Verna Oller Aquatic Trust recently had to make a change to ensure there will always be enough money to keep Oller’s dream alive.

Initially, the trust paid for both free swimming lessons and unlimited swimming sessions at the Astoria Aquatic Center and the Dunes Bible Camp pool. Group swimming lessons are still free, Doug Knutzen, one of the board members who manage the trust said on Aug. 14. However, recreational and lap swimmers are now limited to eight free swims per month.

“It’s being used far beyond our expectations. It’s getting to the point now where we’re having to watch our budget because we’d like to see the program going into perpetuity,” Knutzen said.

When Oller, 98, died in Long Beach in May 2010, only a few people knew she had amassed a fortune through smart investing and frugal living. Before her death, Oller and her attorney, Guy Glenn Sr., quietly arranged to leave about $1 million of her savings for local educational causes. Oller’s great dream was to help local children learn to swim, so she also gave the City of Long Beach about $3.5 million to build a pool.

Ultimately, the city declined to accept her gift, after a committee determined the city couldn’t afford the long-term costs of operating a pool. It took several years and the help of a probate attorney for the directors of the trust to come up with an alternative way to provide water safety and swimming education to local kids. Starting last August, the Aquatic Center began using a card system that allows locals to use the swimming and fitness facility for free. A few months later, the Dunes pool in Ocean Park also began offering free access.

Knutzen, a real estate agent and director of South Pacific County Technical Rescue (better known as “Surf Rescue”), manages the trust along with Port of Ilwaco manager Guy Glenn Jr., firefighter Nick Haldeman and retired doctor Michael Eshleman.

“We didn’t really have any expectations,” Knutzen said. “We knew what we wanted to do, but we didn’t know who was going to take advantage of it.” He thought membership might follow the pattern most gyms see at the start of every new year; an influx of new customers that tapers off to a few dedicated regulars by spring.

“This has not been like that. It has been steadily increasing usage at both places,” Knutzen said.

Summer swimming lessons are always a popular offering at the Aquatic Center, but they were especially popular this year, partly due to the Oller Trust.

“We did see an influx of people from Washington taking lessons this year, and we did add some extra classes,” Aquatic Supervisor Terra Patterson said.

When they studied data from the two sites a few months ago, Knutzen and the other board members realized that a group of faithful regulars were using the pool 10 or more times per month for lap swimming and recreation.

“There are people that swim every single day,” Knutzen said. “…What we found out was a very small minority of our users were using the majority of the benefit.”

Early on, a small, but vocal group of locals criticized the board’s decision to make arrangements with existing facilities, so they were thrilled to learn the swimming passes had proven so popular. However, they also realized they were spending the fund faster than expected — and not necessarily on the services that were most important to Oller.

“We want to have a program that’s going to last forever. At the rate that people were using the pool, it was going into principal and not necessarily interest,” Knutzen explained. “We’re trying to maintain, as all foundations do, a balance between working off interest, and not touching the nest egg.”

Knutzen said the board members decided to cap the number of swims, because they felt they had a duty to prioritize lessons over swimming for recreation and fitness.

There was no “blueprint” for an arrangement like this, Knutzen said, so it’s not surprising to him that they’ve had to make adjustments as they learn more about how people use the pool. They may need to make more adjustments in the future, to ensure that the trust money is spent as responsibly as possible, Knutzen said. For example, they’re trying to figure out how to address the problem of people who sign up for swim lessons — which the trust must pay for up front — and then don’t show up to class.

He asked families to be responsible stewards of Oller’s remarkable gift, so that future generations will be able to benefit too.

“If we buy them, use them,” Knutzen said. “Don’t [sign up] and out of five or six or seven lessons, go twice. It’s stuff like this that is basically making this kind of tough to do.”

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