Feature Article - January 2010
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Staying Afloat

Operating Aquatics in the Black

By Dawn Klingensmith

Support Through Partnerships

Sponsors can help programs get off the ground, and they can take a leading or supporting role in marketing as well as bearing other expenses. Finding appropriate and willing sponsors requires a lot of legwork, though. That's why even in the midst of aggressive downsizing, the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Commission hired a full-time employee to seek out and establish sponsorships and partnerships. "Historically, finding sponsors had been an add-on to other employees' responsibilities," Stencil said.

Although rare, public-private partnerships are among the few successful models for municipally owned aquatics centers. At least one city pool has been spared closure by entering into such an arrangement. The city of Fullerton in Orange County, Calif., decided to close the Janet Evans Swim Complex because it was as much of a money pit as a community asset. However, a local swim team stepped in and offered to manage the pool, its programming and staffing, and proposed that the city retain ownership and maintenance responsibilities. Now the swim complex operates as a nonprofit that makes money and then invests the earnings back into the community. For example, last year, it gave 2,000 free swim lessons to disadvantaged youths.

The Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team, or F.A.S.T., brought a fresh management perspective. "There's a preexisting, established mentality very common among recreation departments across the U.S. to operate only during the summer months," said William Jewell, chief operating officer and head coach, speaking in 83-degree weather in late November.

The city had been offering two-week learn-to-swim sessions in the summer, which Jewell felt was insufficient from both an economics and an educational standpoint. "If you learn to swim in two weeks at age 4 and then you're not exposed to water for most months out of the year, your retention is going to be zilch. We like to encourage year-round lessons," which has been lucrative, he said.

The new management is also more aggressive about renting out the complex to other swim teams and groups. In fact, teams travel all the way from Canada to escape that country's harsh winters and soak up the California sun.

In the neighboring state of Arizona, Yuma Union High School had been unable since the 1980s to follow through on plans to add a swimming pool for its competitive team and physical education classes. At the same time, the city of Yuma lacked funds to provide its residents with a community leisure pool. Eventually, the city and school district joined forces—and funds—to build a shared facility, which opened in July.

The school paid for a competitive pool, while the city funded a leisure pool with a slide, dumping bucket and a splash pad area, banking on the idea that such features would draw families and help the facility break even or perhaps turn a profit.