Economy's Tumult Drives Aquatic Facility Plans
By Daniel P. Smith
Spotted 30 minutes southwest of Chicago's urban core, Woodridge, Ill., is a suburban enclave for the city's middle-class. With its strip centers and chain restaurants, the characteristic signs of suburbia blanket the area, giving the village of 30,000 an air of Anytown, USA. Amid the routine, however, stands an attraction that pulls visitors into the suburb's boundaries, inviting guests to enjoy slices of the summertime fun.
Since its opening in 1997, the Cypress Cove Family Aquatic Center has been heralded as one of Chicagoland's most unique and distinctive public swimming facilities. Visitors have poured into the 8-acre park from all corners of the Chicago area, wowed by the facility's tempting atmosphere and entertaining climate.
In 2006, village officials and park district representatives began discussing renovations to the then-9-year-old facility.
"The idea was to keep it interesting and fresh by adding new features every two years, but that just didn't happen," Cypress Cove Family Aquatic Center Supervisor Amanda Nichols said.
When plans surfaced to demolish Woodridge's other public swimming facility—the Hobson Pool, a small, outdated lap pool long operating in the red—Cypress Cove staff not only had ammunition to make their renovation wishes come true, but an emerging plan for their remodel.
"We had money slotted for the work, but, most importantly, we saw a need for a lap pool facility when Hobson closed," Nichols said.
In August 2008, the Woodridge Park District broke ground for its revamped $3.5 million family aquatic complex. On its existing land, Cypress Cove added a 25-yard, six-lane lap pool with ADA accessible ramp, a 5,260-square-foot spray play area, and a tot slide, a strategic addition for a facility with little to offer children under 42 inches.
Yet, merely opening the revamped facility wasn't enough, particularly as the economy's troubles hit a crescendo in late 2008 and the general populace tightened their spending in hopes that others, including government and business, would do the same. Even though Cypress Cove has not received tax dollars, there remained an overriding sense that the village and its park district needed to justify its ambitious project.
From park districts and colleges to YMCAs and school districts, aquatic centers across the country have had similar concerns in recent months. In this era of financial strain, some aquatic centers have halted plans for new facilities, modified existing plans, turned toward renovation rather than new construction, or, at the minimum, felt compelled to validate the expenditure, all realities that have impacted aquatic design, implementation and a facility's introduction to the public.
The biggest trend in today's aquatic center world has less to do with innovative, exciting design features and more to do with creating strategic, well-conceived and financially efficient projects the public will embrace.
"Right now, I don't know if there are any design trends. The cities just don't have the money," Yarger Design Group President Bill Yarger said. "The bigger question [leaders] are asking is: Can we justify this project?"
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.
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."
With a greater shift over to recreational water, aquatic facilities have increasingly evaded the standard rectangular box,
a product burdened with little entertainment value, only modest cost recovery and high maintenance costs.
"People can only swim so many laps before getting bored out of their mind, so there's been a consistent move toward a venue for splashing around and playing, which has a greater appeal to the bulk of the community and helps subsidize the cost of the pool," said Randy Mendioroz, president of the Carlsbad, Calif.-based Aquatic Design Group.
In 1994, Mendioroz recalls the City of Vista, Calif., opening The Wave, a then-revolutionary project costing $3.9 million. With a lazy river, four waterslides and an oversized children's play structure, the facility ushered in a new era for public aquatic centers and served as a pioneering example for the recreational water movement. Current estimates hold that the facility makes approximately $300,000 each year.
The University of Texas at Austin, one of the nation's largest public universities, modeled its student aquatic center after the Grand Cypress Orlando resort. Such a college campus-based complex, with its spa, wireless Internet and poolside cafe, would have been unthinkable just one decade ago.
"[Private] waterparks were designed as facilities to make money, so you're seeing people take those lessons and applying them to the public sector," Mendioroz said.
Now, recreational waters are the standard, not the exception, a trend unlikely to fade. While competitive, rectangular pools retain their place and purpose, they are being edged out in an increasingly strict dollars-and-cents argument.
"If cost recovery is part of the equation, which it is for a great deal of facilities," Mendioroz said, "then you need to provide more recreational water than competitive water. There's simply no way around it."
Spraygrounds are one particular aquatic element that has risen in popularity in recent years. Requiring fewer staff, available for a longer season of use, and often placed away from the pool to limit safety concerns, spraygrounds have discernible and cost-effective benefits.
"The operational advantages are clear, and that's why we're seeing [spraygrounds] rise in popularity," LaLonde said.
In the coming years, Whiteaker foresees an integration of electronics and aquatics. From electronic pods, patrons will play video games such as Guitar Hero or enjoy entertainment from the Nintendo Wii series.
"This concept feeds into the growing understanding that there need to be zones and activities for all ages," Whiteaker said.
In some cases, aquatic facilities are seeking outside partnerships to generate income, an opportunity driving both new construction and renovation projects.
"We're seeing design move toward more multi-functional spaces that can accommodate different tenants, such as wellness groups or physical therapy," Whiteaker said. "This crossover impact is going to be central to aquatic facilities moving forward."
In more inspiring economic times, aquatic managers and architects were far more likely to take ambitious design steps. Today, practicality and the bottom line reign, propelling energy efficiency into the forefront. Many pools are performing energy audits to assess consumption and are looking for solutions for reducing energy use. Exciting, perhaps costly, design features are taking a backseat to less visible, even unseen operational components that offer true cost savings.
"There's no question that facilities are looking hard at operational costs and taking a fine-tooth comb to the numbers, including energy," LaLonde said.
Flooded suction pumps, which sit below the static water level, provide 20 to 30 percent better motor efficiency to spur electrical cost savings while a slower-spinning motor results in greater durability. Automatic filtration systems, meanwhile, filter backwater only when necessary, eliminating the need to rely on a human maintenance routine.
Keeping water warm comes at a substantial cost, leading many pool managers to investigate new heating options. In a typical 50-meter pool, Mendioroz estimates that $250,000 to $300,000 is spent on utilities, predominantly gas. Heaters running at up to 98 percent thermal efficiency and even solar panels can retain a pool's temperature while reducing gas consumption.
"If you've got the room for the solar panels, then this is a no-brainer," Mendioroz said. "The panels pay for themselves in four to six years and, particularly in warmer climates where the sun's shining, pools can save up to 40 percent on their natural gas costs."
Thermal blankets are also gaining increased use. Costing approximately $3.50 per square foot, the thermal blankets provide an additional 40 percent energy savings and generate a six-month payback, Mendioroz said.
"Among all the energy-saving measures, thermal blankets offer the best bang for the buck," he said. "The biggest issue is having the labor to take them off and put them on each day."
From high-performance design that gives consideration to the placement and removal of thermal covers to mechanical systems operating at peak efficiency, the energy-efficient elements provide aquatic facilities a socially conscious quality that resonates with many patrons while simultaneously reducing operating expenses.
"The environmental and economic impact these features have reach out to the social groupings that come to the facility and that's a real benefit for all involved," Whiteaker said.
Health and safety, meanwhile, remain at the forefront.
The recent Virginia Graeme Baker Act caught many aquatic facilities flat-footed. Passed in December 2008, the legislation, aimed at reducing suction entrapment incidents, continues to challenge many facilities with the correct product installation for compliance—this, at a time when money's already tight. Still, compliance is the sole option.
"This legislation has a lot of pools scrambling to get their facility updated," LaLonde said. "There are significant concerns about reaching the expectations, so that the facility can stay open and avoid fines."
In recreational venues such as the pool, illness is a major concern among users. While public health codes have rarely addressed the issue, many facility managers and designers are investing in solutions to combat the spread of communicable diseases.
Effective filtration is the first line of defense against illness, so designers seek as high a turnover as possible. Combating bacteria, viruses and other infectious elements, automatic chemical controls measure the water and maintain the necessary equilibrium. Finally, ultraviolet sterilization or ozone generators work to kill anything not hydrogen or oxygen.
"When you have these three elements together, you can substantially reduce the risk of [recreational water illnesses]," Mendioroz said. "This focus on sanitation is another way in which pools can be responsive to their patrons and give them faith in the facility's management and operations."
As the opening of the revamped Cypress Cove Aquatic Center approached in May 2009, the Village of Woodridge snagged a page from the private-sector playbook. Turning to a thorough marketing campaign complete with direct mail, radio and television spots, and pre-opening tours, the village and its lone aquatic center alerted the community that this was not business as usual.
Thrilled with their village's efforts as well as the remodeled facility's wide appeal and fresh look, residents and nonresidents alike flooded the complex. Despite an unseasonably cool summer, Cypress Cove's 2009 attendance jumped 24 percent from 2008, a sign that the facility's renovations were not only justified, but hitting the mark with the patrons it pledged to serve.
Such aggressive marketing of a public facility, a method once widely thought unnecessary, has become a growing requirement. As the economy has softened and the public pleads for efficiency, sound management, transparency and financial responsibility, marketing provides an avenue for public spaces to package their new expenditure in a positive light.
"A greater number of our clients want to get the public engaged; marketing the experience and the venue is one critical step in a process that is more important now than ever before," LaLonde said.
Going to social venues such as Facebook, establishing a brand identification that resonates with users and fostering communication with patrons will only gain added credence in future years. By repositioning the facility to attract more users, public facilities are bringing private-sector marketing practices into the public sector and reaping the benefits of the renewed attention to detail. It's another trend unlikely to wane.
"It's no longer build it and they will come," Whiteaker said. "Facilities are going to have to provide a unique guest experience for every user and implement attractions and programming to appease a broad population."
Most financial forecasts suggest a positive, upward trend as 2010 unfolds, a vibe that will most certainly infuse aquatic centers with the much-needed capital and confidence to activate plans.
"Communities across the country need these projects; it's just a question of financing," Yarger said. "Right now, we're looking for ways to help our clients present projects to their boards and help them see the ways we can work with vision and purpose."
The solution, many industry insiders contend, rests in finding the balance between attractive aquatic features and well-controlled operational costs, a mix that will unquestionably help facilities justify the expense to patrons and promote a more prosperous future.
"We know the economic times we're in, and we also know we're in a service industry that works to please people," West Chicago's Major said. "Our role is becoming even more essential these days and I think we're all looking for ways to take this challenge and turn it into a real positive."
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