Feature Article - April 2016
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Making Waves on the Waterfront

Recreational Amenities in and Near Water See Surging Interest

By Chris Gelbach

From Mining Roles to Swimming Holes

Ron Romens, president of a company based in Verona, Wis., that provides a variety of water-based recreation products to the market, along with design and planning advice for waterfront areas, is seeing clients undertake a growing number of projects that are turning exhausted mining quarries into bodies of water for recreation. And the further in advance the planning process takes place, the more smoothly the transition can occur—even if it's 20 or 30 years before mining operations conclude.

Crawford also noted this as being important, having been involved both with projects that were planned well in advance and with quarry conversions that weren't. "The best advice I would give as a park planner and designer is to, as early as you possibly can, get a consultant engaged to work through a long-range master-planning process," he said. "That way, you can start to plan the conversion and the transition to what the park is going to look like. Because they usually take a generation to build anyway."

One recent quarry conversion project Romens worked on was SunWest Park in Pasco County, Fla. It features about 700 yards of white sand beach and features amenities that include swimming areas, an NCAA beach volleyball venue, kayak and paddle board rentals, and a large aqua park featuring inflatables on the water.

Romens is seeing increasing interest in inflatable sports parks in these and other beach environments. At between $50,000 and $150,000, these inflatable attractions can be a relatively budget-friendly way to offer a fun amenity that attracts patrons on a pay-to-play basis. "Compared to a new pool that might cost $3.5 to $10 million, that's not a whole ton of money," Romens said.

According to Romens, the commercial inflatables typically come with a two-year warranty, but he's seeing locations getting between three to seven years out of the systems. "Down in the Caribbean where it's 365 days a year and heavy sun, we're seeing about three to four years. We have a lot of summer camps and resorts in the Northeast and Northwest that are getting more like six to eight years out of the products," Romens said.

At the SunWest Park, the newest amenity being installed is a wakeboarding cable park, an amenity Romens is seeing with more frequency. "I think cable parks are a big deal," he said. "I know of at least a dozen of them that are in the planning and development stages currently. And we're seeing them everywhere from California to North Carolina to Florida to Texas."

At the same time, however, he cautions that the most successful waterfront transformations incorporating these attractions also take care to offer amenities for other ages, since the cable parks are most used by teens and young adults.

"Those kids that are 12 and 14, mom's bringing them," Romens said. "So do you have shade? Do you have seating? Do you have other activities, whether land-based or shallow-water-based, for toddlers or young kids? It could be things as easy as creating a dig zone where it's a huge sandbox with shade over it and sectored off—so it's not too narrow of a demographic that it's serving." Romens is seeing an ongoing surge in interest in standup paddleboarding and in yoga on the water, both on paddleboards and on floating yoga mats.

When it comes to more active recreation along rivers, Crawford is seeing increasing interest in whitewater rafting channels and off-channel tubing runs. Because many trail networks also follow rivers, he's also seeing a growing interest in camping amenities. "We've had situations where we've even proposed urban campgrounds within riverfront parks simply because they're located along regional or even statewide trail systems where people will go out for weeks at a time and camp or bike along these trail systems," Crawford said.

A Phased Approach

Because waterfront transformations can often involve numerous state, local and federal entities, they often take place over many phases. In many cases, the initial phases can prove to be such crowd-pleasers that the waterfront projects go far beyond what planners had initially anticipated.

The most successful waterfront transformations that incorporate attractions take care to offer amenities for other ages.

Crawford noted the example of the Principal Riverwalk in Des Moines, Iowa. "We actually came up with a master plan almost 20 years ago based on a $10 million gift," Crawford said. "Here we are now and there's been nearly $90 million invested in the Riverwalk and there's lots of recreational amenities along the river."

The Smale Riverfront Park has likewise been an ongoing project that now includes features such as a lager house, a rose garden, an indoor carousel, a splash pad, a rose garden, a banquet center and other amenities. It has turned a once-ignored area of the city into a prime city attraction. "It's an honor to work there, and I think that the best part is that the city and the citizens think it's theirs," Dawson said. "And it is theirs. It's the community's."