Feature Article - January 2020
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Worlds of Water Fun

A Deep-Dive Into Outdoor Aquatic Park Design

By Rick Dandes

The integration of science, art and economics is one of the key challenges faced by designers in building new, or reimagining existing, outdoor aquatic parks.

You want to give communities what their residents want, in terms of programs and amenities, said David L. Keim, director of public market business development, Aquatic Development Group, Cohoes, N.Y., but you also want to be practical and suggest ways to prevent budget drain.

"We deal with many municipalities, and early in the planning phase we ask about their economic goals right out of the box," Keim said. "We'll say: Are you looking for this new or upgraded facility to make money? Are you looking for it to break even, or do you even care? There are some places we've found that don't really care. Having an aquatic park is an amenity that they are providing for the citizens in the community, and as long as they don't lose too much, they are OK with it."

Every project is unique, added Ryan Nachreiner, project director, Water Technology Inc. (WTI), of Beaver Dam, Wis. "Communities come at this from different perspectives in trying to determine what is best for them, what to include in their project, and what not to include."

From a practical perspective, added Jen Gerber, business development leader at WTI, getting everybody on the same page about terminology before drawing up a proposal is key, because so often people get caught up in the words and wind up not knowing if they are talking about the same thing. "There is a massive educational process that has to take place, both within the design team, getting everyone up to speed, and with the stakeholders' group within the community. And then, after all that, getting this in front of everyone's eyes. Once we know what all the terms mean, we can be confident that everyone is talking about the same things, seeing the same things, and working out where their priorities are."

There are three big processes that go into what a project is, Nachreiner explained. "The planning process begins with preliminary design and feasibility efforts, and that involves looking at the community and the area where the potential project is going to be developed. We need find out what else is out there—if other aquatic and recreation centers exist—to see where in the region there might be a deficiency in programming offerings. All this so that we know how we can best serve the community with different program options that could be developed. That is a huge component of the decision-making."

Nachreiner's team will run a market analysis, and a demographic analysis as well. A major factor is always going to be the budget, and what a community can afford. "From a capital perspective," he said, "we don't want to develop something that is at a debt level the community can't support. Operationally, we want to keep in mind what it is going to cost to run those facilities. We want it to be financially sustainable."

Oftentimes communities will rely on their own aquatic staff for advice, said Scott Palmer, director of marketing, Aquatic Design Group, Carlsbad, Calif. "It helps to know their level of experience and what they've done with other facilities."

Palmer also relies on outreach meetings and talking to user groups, but with a caveat. "The challenge with that is the most vested stakeholders are going to be the swim team, the water polo team and maybe triathlon-training individuals. But although these users have the most vested interest in the facility (they're the ones using it the most), … they might represent 1% or even half a percent of the potential user population."

If you are trying to come up with something that will be successful at a municipal facility, Palmer continued, you need to reach out to the 14% to 15% of community members who are already park users, and likely to be interested in aquatic programming—what he refers to as "the silent majority." "These are the people who are going to make the difference on what happens with revenues and cost recoveries—but quite often these are people who aren't motivated to show up at a parks commission or a city council meeting to go to the podium and talk about their needs, their desires, and wishes."

The challenge you will likely face, Palmer said, "is how do we make sure we represent all these other potential users when we talk about an aquatic center and what it can and should be?"

"You should certainly try to get as much feedback from the surrounding communities and the potential pool users as possible," Nachreiner agreed. "If they don't attend meetings, your interaction with the community can still come in many forms, from public meetings to surveys, whether they are anecdotal or online surveys. We are a believer in social media engagement. There are many different forms of communication with the public to try and get that feedback."