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

By Jessic Royer Ocken

Putting It Into Practice

The Midlothian Park District's swimming pool in Midlothian, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, is proof that you don't need the latest and greatest state-of-the-art equipment to have a successful aquatic center.

This outdoor pool complex, nestled in a residential area, was constructed in the 1960s and purchased by the city in 1995 after years of private use. Once the city acquired the property—which includes an L-shaped main pool with a diving area, a junior pool with 2 and 3 feet of water and a baby pool that ranges from 8 to 15 inches deep, for a total of 250,000 gallons of water—a series of upgrades began.

A sand volleyball court appeared, along with a play lot and boccie ball area, and a wooden deck allowed patrons to escape the concrete. Bushes and landscaping "dressed things up," explained Pool Manager and Safety Coordinator Terry Knapp.

"We've replaced the gutter line tiles in the main pool and the baby pool," Knapp added. "But the pools themselves are solid as a rock. They get painted every three or four years, but they were built by someone who knew what they were doing."

With no major renovations on the horizon, Knapp has focused on other areas for improvements—upgrades to the concession area, the addition of shade seating, lights and paving in the parking lot and increased handicapped accessibility in the pool's bathhouse bathrooms.

"We do something every year," Knapp said.

Knapp and her staff are also quite skilled at using their assets to maximum success. "We don't open until the first weekend in June," she explained. "We bypass Memorial Day, which is always cold and rainy anyway."

Knapp documented pool attendance during these early days of the season for several years and presented the numbers to her board, who then gave her permission for the change. She also documented the end of the season and noted that the pool lost money—in fact, enough money to negate everything they'd earned up to that point—in the last two weeks it was open. Kids go back to school, the staff goes back to high school or college, and there's not much of anyone left at the pool. Therefore, "the last day for the pool this past season was Aug. 13," she explained.

The only way to avoid public outcry about such an early close date is to plan ahead, Knapp noted. "You can't just decide in the middle of the season. Patrons are relentless. If it's not in black and white, they'll raise a stink."

However, with this policy in place, everyone knows what to expect, and both the pool and its patrons make the most of their time together. At the height of summer, the pool averages 200 to 250 visitors a day.

Knapp also has thought carefully about her daily schedule. The pool opens at 11 a.m., is closed for a dinner break from 5 to 6 p.m., and then reopens until 9 p.m.

"We also break hourly for 10 minutes if it's 88 degrees or less and there are 150 people or fewer in the pool, or 15 minutes if it's hotter than 88 or if there are more than 150 in the pool," Knapp explained. "Kids need a break. They need to get out of the water."

This pause for the cause also enables adults to garner some space amidst all the splashers and encourages patrons who have worked up an appetite to visit the concession stand.

Opening at 11 a.m. leaves plenty of time for swim lessons in the morning, as well as special sessions such as "First Splash," a program for parents and tots designed to acquaint kids with the water beyond their bathtubs.

On Saturdays and Sundays, the pool is also available for private party rental, and everything from teen dances to a motorcycle club fundraiser has been held there. The pool and grounds can accommodate quite a few people, Knapp noted. She just has to be sure to provide enough lifeguards to keep things safe when the pool is at capacity (which is 288 people).

The Midlothian pool receives a further boost from an intergovernmental agreement formed with the nearby city of Oak Forest. Residents of Oak Forest can use the Midlothian pool at the residential rate, and Midlothian residents can use Oak Forest's exercise facility at a discount, because neither community has both. This means double the advertising in both cities' park district brochures and a bigger pool of patrons to draw from.

Knapp's latest coup, which she admits was stolen from another nearby town, is to offer a special on residential family memberships for a limited time before the pool opens each season. For 11 days before the last season began, families could buy a membership for $99, rather than $140. "This brought me to budget and over," Knapp reported. This year, the special will be available for 12 days, and Knapp anticipates a 75-percent greater turnout. With this deal, "it costs less than 50 cents a day to join the pool," she said.

Who can argue with that?