Feature Article - March 2014
Find a printable version here

Water Works

Make the Most of Your Waterfront

By Rick Dandes


The Old Swimming Hole

For municipalities especially, swimming pools and aquatic centers can be very expensive operations. But many of those municipalities have a natural asset like a riverfront or a swimming beach. Years ago, some of these areas were like a hub, a center of what happened in town. Then, somehow, people moved away from nature and went to modern swimming pools and aquatic facilities. But now, with sustainability and active recreation being a trend, municipalities are ideally positioned to go back to those things in new and creative ways.

"The question is, how do you utilize underutilized assets, how do you get a high rate of return, and why does this type of recreation work?" asked Ron Romens, president of a recreation equipment supplier based in Verona, Wis.

"I'll tell you why," he said. "It's active recreation vs. passive recreation. People are swimming and diving and climbing. It's back to nature."

locations you are charging a fee. It builds community, and it's socially sustainable in that it becomes that gathering place again, a place where so many memories were created in the past, now to be relived and new memories created. There is a lot of history there that people are interested in, if it is presented in a safe, creative way. And a community can build on that.

Studies have shown that people recreate longer and stay longer when nature is integrated. Financially, it can be sustainable, since at some of these

Picture if you will the old swimming hole of the 1940s and 1950s. These beaches were packed with people. And a wide variety of age groups would be there. It was multi-generational, from grandparents to grandkids all playing on the beach.

Now, we can look at the modern swimming hole and re-imagine it. Take Regner Park in West Bend, Wis., for example, where they had this longstanding swimming beach, which was the center of activity in the town for years. Recently, it was reinvented. The town put in a splashpad, a new pavilion and it just revitalized that whole park. Revenues went up. Attendance went back up to the level of where it was 30 years ago. And it was just by modernizing the beach.

Another transformation occurred at Troll beach in Stoughton, Wis., Romens said. "This was a half-acre pond that they used for a swimming hole. It used to be called the mud hole. They rebranded it and they added a group of inflatables for the waterfront, shade shelters, some seating and they quadrupled their revenues. It went from a little swimming hole used for toddlers and moms to four times the number of the previous year and teenagers and young adults going to it to recreate."

One other thing, suggested Romens. If you don't have an existing asset, you might have five acres of empty land. "Why not build a pond and totally build the recreation around it?" he said. "The reason all of this works is that it really hits on all the things that people are gravitating to. When you put sand under their toes and grass under their feet, people love it. And they come back."

Going Green, on a Larger Scale

The city of Houston is in the midst of a stunning greenways project. "Most people don't know that Houston has flooding issues. We are a city of bayous, and these bayous have caused major flooding over the years," said Joe Turner, director Houston Parks and Recreation Department. "So, the city talked with its citizens, and eventually developed a vision plan in concert with the Harris County Flood Control District, which is an organization whose job it is to solve flooding problems.

As the district bought up land along the bayou, Houston Parks then began developing the banks for recreational use. "We have a project called Bayou Greenway 2020, where we're building 150 miles worth of trail along our bayou systems. It's a $205 million project and of that $205 million, $100 million of it was in a bond project that was passed and then our nonprofit entity, our Houston Parks board, came up with the other $105 million. We call it BG2020 because we'll be through in the year 2020."

The vision, Turner said, is to connect the waterways and the trail system using the bayou system as the framework. "Many years ago," he said, "they were waterways and people turned their backs on them. Now we have learned the value of the bayou system, but also a trail system to let people get out and experience nature and walking trails. We build a trail and they will use it. We have done quite a bit of bridge work on the trail systems. The result is we are really connecting communities that weren't connected before unless you drove there by vehicle."

Over the next seven years, BG2020 will unite nine bayous that flow through the city with parks and trails. The project will add about 1,500 additional acres of green space and create 150 miles of connected, continuous, safe, off-street trails.