Facility Profile - October 2004
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Aquatic Envy

Spray N' Play
Buffalo Grove, Ill.

By Lori Magee and Alejandra Parés

The diagnosis was simple: The village of Buffalo Grove, Ill., had an acute case of aquatic envy, with all the classic symptoms. Neighboring suburbs were building state-of-the-art aquatic centers left and right, leaving the Buffalo Grove Park District in the proverbial hot summer dust. What's worse, the village had no budget to build a likewise dazzling aquatic center of its own.

But instead of going off the deep end, Buffalo Grove decided to tread in a slightly different direction when it came to creating a new facility—an aquatic playground.

This past June, more than 500 people were on hand to celebrate the grand opening of Spray N' Play, the colorful splash play area addition to the Busch Grove Community Park. Here's how it all came to pass.

Watering down the budget

First a little background: Buffalo Grove is known for its education system, upscale housing and affluent demographics. The village offers charm and convenient access to the cultural, entertainment and business centers of nearby Chicago. Described as a young, aggressive community with strong academic programs, controlled community development and active citizen involvement, Buffalo Grove is listed as one of the "Fifty Fabulous Places to Raise Your Family" in a nationally published book by that title. Accordingly, the municipality is home to an abundance of young families, and more than 90 percent of mothers in the community are stay-at-home moms. The village's commitment to its families is revealed through good schools and public services, extensive youth and family programs, and 50 neighborhood parks.

With such affluence within its borders, one would think that the Buffalo Grove Park District would have cutting-edge facilities in all areas of town: a sophisticated community center, aquatic center, cultural arts center and a theatre. In reality, efforts to bring the village's aging facilities into the modern era have met with resistance.

Over the last decade, there have been five failed attempts to pass a referendum to build a community center. The 2000 referendum went down by less than 100 votes. The message from Buffalo Grove residents was clear: The community fully understood and supported the need for additional space—they just were not willing to fund the cost for these capital projects through a permanent property tax increase.

A cool pool alternative

Meanwhile, the village's neighbors were busy constructing many crowd-pleasing facilities. In 1993 and 1999, respectively, local park districts in northern Vernon Hills and Gurnee opened state-of-the-art aquatic facilities with water slides, recreational and lap swim spaces, and grassy family picnic areas. In 2003, neighbors to the east in Wheeling opened a modern, family-oriented aquatic center that became an immediate attraction for many of Buffalo Grove's residents. In Arlington Heights, Buffalo Grove's neighbor to the south, a community-supported, $15 million tax-increase referendum was passed in 2001 allowing four old pools to be renovated into attractive new aquatic centers. In short, Buffalo Grove's families were leaving town to swim. That was an unpleasant reality for a district that aims to be the first and best choice for community recreation.

District staff considered what they could do to keep families from migrating elsewhere for recreation. Officials knew that tweens, teens and families alike were lured by aquatic centers with eye-popping water slides, lazy rivers and wave pools. Unfortunately, these types of facilities seemed to lie beyond the realm of financial feasibility. With a limited capital budget, the district wanted to improve customer service without breaking the bank.

The epiphany came when the staff and administrators at the district realized that plans for these $5 million facilities are normally generated by adults with adult interests at heart. But what was the real need of the community? Simple: In the summer, people, especially kids, really just want to get wet.

With this new perspective in mind, Mike Rylko, park district executive director, and Dan Schimmel, director of recreation and facilities, attended an educational seminar on aquatic playgrounds at an industry conference. It was there that they first learned about splash play areas. Fusing sleek architectural designs with fun-filled entertainment, these aquatic play environments are fully automated, zero-depth recreational systems that are revolutionizing aquatic play.