Feature Article - September 2008
Find a printable version here

Schooled in Aquatics

Waterpark Trends from the College Campus to the Municipal Center

By Dawn Klingensmith


fficials at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau believe their newly opened Student Aquatic Center features at least two amenities that no other campus recreation center currently offers: a 40-foot-wide, 14-foot-high climbing wall spanning one side of the facility's leisure pool, and a zip line consisting of a gravity-propelled pulley on a cable that provides a splashy way of entering the water.

The climbing wall was designed and painted to resemble the craggy bluffs skirting the Mississippi River in southeastern Missouri. As a further challenge to climbers, four separate waterfalls cascade down the wall, simulating a real-life rock-climbing experience.

In addition to the climbing wall and zip line, the aquatic center also boasts a six-lane, 25-yard lap pool for competitive swimming; a 12-person whirlpool spa; men's and women's locker rooms, as well as three family changing rooms; and artificial vegetation to complete the outdoorsy feel.

Designed by Hastings and Chivetta Architects Inc. of St. Louis and completed in December, the Student Aquatic Center is intended to increase Southeast's marketability among incoming freshmen, since other colleges in the region have similarly impressive aquatic facilities.

"Having just opened, we have not been able to gauge whether the Student Aquatic Center has had an impact on recruitment or retention efforts for the university," said Troy Vaughn, Southeast's director of recreation services. "However, we do note that the facility is very popular among those asking about the university from an admissions standpoint and is a top attraction when prospective parents and students tour the campus. The university has accepted the two largest freshmen classes in its history during the past two years. We foresee that the Student Aquatic Center will just add to that."

This campus aquatic center is not only the crown jewel of Southeast's student recreation program, but also a crystal ball, providing a view of the future of aquatics at the municipal level, suggested Scot Hunsaker, president of Counsilman-Hunsaker, a St. Louis-based aquatic design firm.

"The university segment is a great market to watch because of the fierce competition for students," he said. "Quality of campus life is one of the top three criteria students consider when selecting a school, and universities and parents are seeking to provide a well-rounded, wholesome, healthy experience, which is where aquatic facilities come into play."

In their marketing materials, schools can emphasize their ability to provide such an environment and counteract any "Animal House" or "party school" type of associations parents might have. In addition, well-designed aquatic centers make a strong visual impact—campus tours often begin and end at the student recreation center.

"The dilemma universities wrestle with is how much money to invest in education versus providing these sorts of extracurricular, social and leisure experiences," Hunsaker said. "But if this tells you how important (aquatic centers are) to students, funding usually comes from student-approved increases in student fees. So students are essentially taxing themselves to create these experiences."

How will this phenomenon in the university segment affect aquatics at the parks and recreation level down the line?

"Today's students are our future leaders," Hunsaker said. "What we've done is raise their expectations, which in time raises the bar for what municipal facilities will be expected to offer as students graduate, have kids of their own, and serve on their city council or get involved in their community."