Feature Article - January 2010
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Staying Afloat

Operating Aquatics in the Black

By Dawn Klingensmith

Innovation and Enterprise

Public-private partnerships are hardly a novel idea, though. West Hartford, Conn., and the private enterprise Aquatics for Life (part of Rowland's Lutra Aquatics company) entered into a contractual agreement nearly two decades ago. At the time, the town had a newly renovated facility—the aforementioned Cornerstone Aquatics Center—but it also had a strained budget and staff shortage. Researching possible solutions, the town came across Aquatics for Life. The company said it could make Cornerstone self-supporting, with no taxpayer subsidies, if the town would simply stand out of its way.

Aquatics for Life takes care of all the day-to-day operations, while the town is responsible for the building's structural maintenance. West Hartford's public school swim teams get to use the pool for free, and the town's youth swimming program receives a discount. Yet Cornerstone's revenues consistently exceed expenses by a comfortable margin.

Left to their own devices and lacking profit-hungry private partners, most municipal pools do not operate like businesses. With government involvement, "Any change you want to make needs to be approved," Rowland said. "It slows down the decision process."

In a capitalist society, innovators come out ahead. But managers of municipally owned aquatics centers will find "it can be very difficult to gain approval to make investments in something new and exciting and worthwhile," Rowland said.

By contrast, Rowland's Aquatics for Life added an aquatics cross-training center at Cornerstone consisting of 16 underwater stationary bicycles and four underwater treadmills to entice people who aren't lap swimmers to exercise in the pool. The imported equipment cost upward of $60,000. Had the purchase required city council approval, "It probably would have been a three-year process, and they probably would have shot it down because there are always taxpayers who will scream, 'Why are we spending money on this?'" said Rowland, adding that the underwater equipment generated positive publicity right away and, in time, the expected profits.

To the extent they are able, municipal aquatics facilities could incorporate elements made popular by privately held, resort-style waterparks, which are all about making money. For example, Oakland County is looking into launching a merchandise program. "Our waterpark has a concessionaire, so we're working with them to offer waterpark memorabilia," Stencil said.

However, "If a municipal facility is just a single pool, the chances of having a successful gift shop are slim," said Sangree of Hotel & Leisure Advisors. "But even a single pool maybe never thought about selling suntan lotion or goggles—things people realize they forgot to bring when they get there. That might be a way to help them make money."

A small municipal facility will never be able to offer what a private waterpark offers, he added. "But some things translate well on a smaller scale; for example, an arcade room can be pretty profitable."