Supplement Feature - February 2010
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Raging Waters

Economy's Tumult Drives Aquatic Facility Plans

By Daniel P. Smith

The State of the Industry

In many cases, public aquatic projects have been paused, if not simply cancelled. Some estimates have public sector funding for recreation projects down as much as 40 percent. Many aquatic complexes have had capital dollars restricted, as many decision-makers are skittish about perception and backlash.

"It's no secret that aquatic centers are expensive to construct, operate and maintain, and that's making them a target as money tightens," said Doug Whiteaker of Water Technology, an aquatic design firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis.

Money once earmarked for a new pool or renovations has been reallocated or imprisoned in the coffers. Other venues, with money and architectural plans in hand, are merely waiting for their project to earn the approval of leadership.

"The fact is that the present economy has severely limited the opportunities and options for many," said Tom LaLonde of Williams Architects in Carol Stream, Ill.

These days, the case of Edina, Minn. is not an uncommon tale.

Since 2006, Edina Parks and Recreation Assistant Director Ed MacHolda has held drawings for a renovation to his town's existing aquatic facility. Almost exclusively impacted by the economy and bureaucratic decision-making, the delays have mounted. Construction once slated to begin in 2009 is now (tentatively) suspended until the fall of 2010.

"We've operated wisely and successfully, but some forces are out of our control," MacHolda said with frustration, no doubt echoing the emotions of aquatic directors throughout the country.

The current economic climate has done much to spark industry-wide deliberation.

"Aquatic centers are asking themselves: How can we function in this economic climate? How can we turn this experience, with money tight and revenue down, into something positive?" Yarger said.

Refreshing an Existing Facility

In this economic climate, many aquatic facilities are turning to renovations over new construction. While still requiring a sizable investment, reshaping an existing facility is viewed as fiscally responsible and, subsequently, more favorable in the eyes of an increasingly cynical public. At many venues, the assets and structure exist to revise a facility and spark its resurgence, playing directly into an emerging trend for family "staycations."

"For these facilities that are 5, 10, or 15 years old, the thought is that they cannot rest on their laurels. They have to provide the public with new opportunities and generate a fresh feel," LaLonde said.

The key rests in including proven design features that appeal to a wide range of ages and abilities. Such is the story told by the former Prairie Oaks Aquatic Center in West Chicago, Ill. Over a dozen years old, Prairie Oaks grew tired and attendance staggered.

"We had become stale and vanilla, no question," West Chicago Park District Executive Director Gary Major said. "Still, the bones were there to work with."

In 2008, the venue began the first phase of a two-part, $1.7 million renovation project when it expanded its concessions area and reorganized traffic flow into the complex. The following year, the facility added a 35-foot slide, a birthday party area, and a remodeled sand play area. Cosmetic touches, including painting trim in vivid rainbow colors, and the facility's rebranding to Turtle Splash, a name prompted by a massive turtle overlooking the venue, completed the work.

"There's simply no way we could have afforded to rip it up and start from scratch," Major said. "We knew we had the merchandise to work with, so we took a black-and-white television and turned it into a big-screen plasma TV."

Positive results followed. Throughout 2009, patrons arrived in greater numbers, made more frequent visits and remained at the facility longer, thereby boosting other profit centers.

"We bet the farm that this would have a major impact and it did," said Yarger, who helped direct the facility's transformation. "But it shows a very important point in this climate: You have to be slow and sure and justified with a good game plan to make the plan work."