Feature Article - February 2007
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Special Supplement: A Complete Guide to Aquatic Centers

By Jessic Royer Ocken

hether you're a seasoned pool owner looking to add excitement to your offerings or a parks and recreation director considering indulging your community's clamoring for an aquatic center, you've got a lot to think about—from design decisions to safety and sanitation to keeping your patrons interested and coming back. Luckily, Recreation Management has done at least some of that thinking for you and compiled a wealth of knowledge from industry experts to get you on your way.


Of course you're anxious to get right to the good stuff and see your new facility take shape, but hold on a minute. Many of the most important decisions will be made before anything at all has been built. In fact, your planning process (or lack thereof) can seal the fate of your facility.

One of the most important considerations is the effect your proposed project will have on existing budgets, according to Dave Burbach, president of Burbach Aquatics, a Platteville, Wis., design firm whose clients are usually local units of government. "We custom-tailor an expenditure budget and revenue budget for each client," he explained. "You've got to do planning first. I would say that in many cases, planning takes from one to three years."

And Burbach Aquatics is not alone in this perspective. "We try to make sure to build the right facility," said William Yarger of Yarger Design Group, a Manchester, Mo.-based firm that's been creating theme parks and recreation and aquatic centers for some 30 years. "We do a feasibility study up front. We first look at the population, the climate, the number of people who will be coming and, competitively, what other kinds of recreation venues are around in the area," Yarger explained. "What do the neighbors have? Why would people come to this facility versus where they're already going?"

What's already established in your area should dictate, at least to some extent, what you build so that people have an assortment of choices. "Usually if a [pool facility] is remodeling, it's because they've watched their attendance go down," Yarger said.

Rising maintenance costs and efforts also may be a signal that it's time to make a change. "If you don't differentiate [your facility], you end up competing for the same marketplace," Yarger noted. "It's really important to understand what you're putting in."

But back to budgeting for a moment. You don't want to drown in debt shortly after putting in your fantastic new pool. "Every community has limited funds, and if [your aquatic center] is not successful you'll have to subsidize it more and more because it's not bringing in revenue," Yarger said. "That's why we do feasibility studies."

And here's the part where your planning can save you, even if you don't get exactly what you want. "If [a community] knows up front what they think they want, and then can see that they won't be able to cover the costs, before they make any mistakes we can show them what to add to change the bottom line," Yarger said.

And the size of your community is a big factor in this, he noted. About 25,000 people are needed to support an aquatic center, and perhaps 50,000 for a fully equipped recreation center. "If the population is only 10,000 people, [we ask] what can they afford and what will they use?" he explained. "We try to help people understand that they're not just picking a design off the shelves."

Another important thing to plan for? The future. Right now it may seem incredibly exciting to be building a pool or adding a waterslide, but eventually this will be old news. And if more and more competition will be springing up in your area, you'll want to save a little something for further down the line. Many designers suggest that you plan to add a second phase or a few new elements in three to five years. This approach also makes you more able to respond to your community's changing needs. You may find a few years down the line that the population in your area has shifted, so it makes more sense to build a second facility at another location, rather than adding on in the same space.

"We're thinking big," said Aquatics Coordinator Tammy Hawkins about the City of Las Vegas' plans for the future of its aquatic centers. "Dual slides and rock climbers that go in the water, lily pads... We're looking at Raging Waters [a nearby waterpark] and some of the things they have on a smaller scale, some elements that can be removed for swim meets. Those are good to attract more people."