Feature Article - July 2013
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Jumping Off the Deep End

Daring Trends in Aquatic Facility Design

By Kelli Anderson

Of course, attracting more teens and tweens with the lure of excitement, is also an opportunity to expand programming and increase revenue to offset initial investments in extreme features.

But for those willing to invest in a greater capital outlay, there is some additional good news: Low interest rates are making such investments and new building projects more cost-effective than ever. "We're seeing interest rates at an all-time low and cost of construction is similar to 2006 to 2007," said Kevin McElyba, owner and lead designer at Aquatic Design Consultants Inc. of Kansas City, Mo. "So, for communities that really need to do something, now is the perfect time to do something if they can."

Another financial plus has been the recent development of grants and subsidies by state, federal and even utility companies, which are helping to offset the previously prohibitive costs of energy-saving technologies.

For indoor waterparks like those in the Wisconsin Dells, new utility-funded subsidies on installation and equipment are making a big difference. "Indoor facilities are really recognizing the benefit of investing in energy-efficient equipment and working with local utilities' grant programs to help pay for additional costs," said Daryl Matzke, vice president of Ramaker and Associates, and director of aquatics in Sauk City, Wis. "The technology has been there a long time but people once looked at the front-end cost and said, 'Not doing it.' But a loan program allows you to buy this equipment at premium cost and to use the energy savings to pay off the loan."

Maztke added that while it might take two years to pay off a loan, the advantage is that if the equipment lasts 10 years, then for eight years, the owner will benefit from reduced utility costs. This is a win-win for utility companies, too, which have a vested interest in keeping utility output low to reduce the need for more service or gas lines. But it gets even better.

What is also tipping the aquatic recreation industry toward change is the enforcement of ADA regulations that finally went into effect on Jan. 31.

These loans are not only for equipment that directly affects energy consumption, but are also being used for equipment that improves water quality because it, too, is directly related to energy reduction and is therefore of interest to grant-peddling groups. "Variable frequency drives for motors, pumps for air handling units, UV for better disinfection and controlling chloramines—if I improve the water quality with this equipment," Maztke said, "there are less chloramines in the air for indoor facilities, and better air means less ventilation and less heat to heat the building with. It's all tied together. Improve air quality and reduce energy consumption."

Partnerships also have become effective in fighting the battle of the financial crisis, as Virginia Tech and the community of Christiansburg, Va., discovered in their recent $19 million collaborative project. "The community of 20,000 knew they couldn't afford the competitive piece of the aquatic center, so they reached out to the local university and asked if they were interested in a public/private partnership by building a 50-meter competition pool with 10-meter diving tower and springboards," said Terry Caldwell, director of aquatics of the facility, which opened in 2010. "After three years, it's been met with unbelievable success and great cooperation."

However, the benefits of the arrangement—which include a $250,000 yearly rental fee to the town for 20 years with five years free, and that resulted in three different pools (competitive, leisure and therapy)—go beyond the user's enjoyment and the expanded programming. The aquatic center has affected the economic life of the community as well.

"The economic impact on the community is huge," Caldwell explained, "because people come into town for swim meets, plus we have age group swimming so people are driving from northern and eastern Virginia and up and down the east coast. They are staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants for four days, so that's a big piece. Before this, they didn't know us from anywhere. We're lucky to provide that financial piece in today's recreation industry."

Of course, drawing in the competitive community is one way to help, but Caldwell concedes that, as is true for most aquatic centers, money is best found by investing in leisure. "My suggestion is you must include a leisure portion in aquatics because that is where the money is. You can host large swim meets, but leisure is your daily admission and people coming back so you want to make sure that you have something for everyone." But in today's competitive climate, it takes more than just a zero-depth entry pool or a lazy river to pique interest. It takes something different.