Feature Article - January 2010
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Staying Afloat

Operating Aquatics in the Black

By Dawn Klingensmith

As kids, most of us of a certain age enjoyed access to a community pool, where year after year a rectangle of chlorinated water, a diving board, some deck chairs and a vending machine supplied a summer's worth of fun. Slathered in baby oil, we gave as little thought to how the pool afforded to operate as we gave to the risk of skin cancer.

"If you go back a little ways, pools never used to be asked to cover their costs. They were always viewed as an amenity that would be offered to members of the community. It was understood that it would cost money, but it was seen as a worthwhile thing" to fund on the city's dime, said Dave Rowland of Lutra Aquatics, a Simsbury, Conn.-based design and operations consultancy for commercial indoor aquatics facilities.

But we're entering a whole new era in aquatics.

Since the economy hit the skids, "A lot of taxpayers are starting to rebel," Rowland said. "They're looking at recreation departments with pools and wondering why it costs so much money. In any given community, the percentage of people who use the pool is small," and non-users are demanding more accountability. In fact, there's increased pressure for aquatics facilities to break even, if not turn a modest profit.

Aquatics program specialist Sue Nelson of USA Swimming, the sport's national governing body, puts it bluntly: "Operational subsidies are becoming a thing of the past."

At the same time, though, aquatics facilities face steeper operating costs and fiercer competition. "Ten or 20 years ago, in order to draw users, the neighborhood pool didn't necessarily have to be well-run. But there's been an explosion in private health clubs and waterparks, to speak nothing of the fact that we have a whole generation of kids who would rather play videogames," Rowland said.

The cost of utilities, insurance, staffing and building materials have shot up, alongside kids' expectations that a municipal aquatics facility should be akin to a waterpark. Yet while taxpayers are not necessarily unwilling to help fund construction of an aquatics center, "they are not willing to help operate the facility at a loss on a long-term basis," said David Sangree, president, Hotel & Leisure Advisors, Cleveland.

Thus, public aquatics facilities now face financial pressures for which past experience has not prepared them, and most are struggling to adapt.

"It's very difficult for municipal aquatic centers to make money, especially given the template for operations," Rowland said. "Municipalities all tend to do things the same way with the same poor results. In most municipalities, the community pool loses several hundred thousand dollars a year."

And the problem keeps repeating itself, even as taxpayers and decision makers demand more accountability. "Any municipality that builds a pool looks a couple of towns over and says, 'How do you run your pool?' and so a singular (and financially unsuccessful) management style has spread across the U.S.," Rowland said.