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Wild About Water Parks PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 19 August 2003 18:00
Rock Island’s $4.4-million Whitewater Junction debuted on May 17 with a week of special events, and then it opened to the public. Bad weather resulted in those first two weeks being “lackluster at best” in terms of attendance, said Bill Nelson, executive director of the Rock Island Park & Recreation Board. “We certainly had our nervous twitches. We took some gambles. We knew we needed to be open some of the days the other pools were closed.”

That’s because there are a lot of municipally owned water parks competing for your recreation dollar these days. Davenport opened two neighborhood parks over the past four years, and Rock Island unveiled Whitewater Junction in Longview Park this year at about the same time Bettendorf opened a renovated Splash Landing. And Moline plans to open its new water-recreation park next year.

Cities have learned that they have to spend money to not lose money. Simply put, traditional pools don’t meet the recreational needs of families, so they don’t draw very well. Hence, they need to be subsidized. In their places are parks with zero-depth pools, water slides, spray playgrounds, and more. They cost more than old-style pools to build, maintain, and staff, but they have a fighting chance at breaking even. And representatives from the park departments of all the major Quad Cities said that’s their goal.

As Nelson noted, breaking even allows cities to use the money they might have spent on a pool subsidy for other programs. In 2001, Rock Island subsidized its pool to the tune of more than $60,000, and “we provide a summer-camp program in four schools for less than that,” he said.

As the swimming season ends, it appears that Whitewater Junction is a success. In spite of a rough opening, the park drew 420 people a day – 30 shy of the original estimate – through July. “We’re within $6,000 of being absolute break-even,” Nelson said. At this point, the city expects Whitewater Junction to bring in just less than $270,000 this year, and that will come close to covering the facility’s operating costs, including interest on the bonds that were used to build it.

Construction costs for Whitewater Junction were $4.4 million, with $700,000 coming from private sources, $400,000 coming from a state grant, $2 million coming from gambling revenues, and $1.3 million coming from bonds. The principal on the bonds will be paid either through the city’s bond capacity or additional gaming funds.

One might question the wisdom of building an elaborate water park instead of something closer to a traditional pool, but the numbers suggest that bigger is better in this case. The last season for the old pool in Longview Park was 2001, and that year it had 15,000 visitors – one of its best attendance years since the mid-’80s. Still, it only generated $21,000 in revenue and required a city subsidy of more than $6 per visitor. “It’s cheaper to give everybody $2 and say, ‘Go away,’” Nelson said.

Whitewater Junction had 32,000 visitors and $192,000 in revenue through July, and Nelson anticipates a maximum loss of $6,000 this year. “Which is better government?” he asked. “This is cheaper than trying to replace the ‘old pool.’”

That’s not quite the whole story. The cost of the principal on the 15-year bonds approaches $87,000 a year. In fairness, though, the old pool was built in 1956 and needed to be replaced. And smaller-scale aquatic facilities built in the past few years in Davenport cost $2.2 million (Fejervary Park, opened four years ago) and $3 million (Annie Wittenmyer complex, opened last year) to build.

Nelson agreed that over 15 or 20 years, the city could save money in terms of construction if it went with a smaller pool with fewer amenities. But those savings would likely be eaten up by higher subsidies.

That’s largely because the rectangular pools with a shallow end, a deep end, and diving boards operate on outdated assumptions about recreation. “They were … being built with the idea of competitive swimming,” Nelson said.

Research suggested another way for pools to go. Studies of beach behavior showed that 65 to 75 percent of people were on the beach rather than in the water. And of those who were getting wet, 85 percent were in one to three feet of water. In other words, traditional pools are largely a waste of space, because the shallowest water is three-feet deep. Nelson said that in the 1980s, recreation planners started thinking, “Why don’t we take that concept and try to build it into our pools?”

Yet making the water park a reality wasn’t an easy task. Replacing the Longview Park pool, which had been built in 1956, had been a topic of discussion in the city since in the mid-1980s, Nelson said. “It had become such a polarizing issue that it became difficult to find out what the citizens wanted and what the groups wanted,” he said. The city conducted a survey in 1999 that found that 85 percent of the respondents felt the need for an outdoor swimming pool, and that pushed the effort for a water park along.

Like Rock Island, Davenport spent a chunk of time discussing new aquatic facilities without coming to any resolution. But an advisory board six years ago recommended the two new pools. Jef Farland, Davenport’s director of Leisure Facilities & Services, said the city decided to follow a neighborhood model, in which a pool is designed to serve a portion of the city rather than the whole municipality. “We had a Wacky Waters [just north of I-80] at the time, and there was no point to competing with anything like that,” Farland said.

The two facilities had strong years in 2002, with no public pools in Bettendorf of Rock Island. The Fejervary Park center drew nearly 26,000 people and brought in almost $73,000. The Annie Wittenmyer pool had almost 31,000 visitors and generated more than $101,000 in revenue. The Wittenmyer pool made almost $2,000 in terms of operating margin, while Fejervary lost a little more than $12,000. Construction of both pools was part of the city’s capital-improvement budget.

Bettendorf’s pool simply needed to be replaced. The city added water slides and a zero-depth pool to Splash Landing in 1999. For the most-recent renovation, the city replaced the aluminum pool built in 1968, tore out the filtration system, added a new zero-depth area with a slide, and replaced the deck. The city spent $1.8 million for the 1999 renovation and $1.6 million for last year’s. The recent changes were funded through a combination of gaming revenues, grants, and sales-tax revenues from the city’s capital-improvement budget. “The idea was to draw from nontax revenues,” said Steve Grimes, the city’s Parks & Recreation director.

Moline’s pool also needs to be replaced – badly. It was built in 1935 and requires a subsidy of at least $50,000 a year even though it draws 35,000 to 37,000 people annually, said Milt Hand, the city’s Parks & Recreation director. A new water facility slated to open next year will feature a zero-depth pool, water slides, a new bathhouse, and a new water playground at a cost of roughly $2.5 million. About $450,000 will come from a state grant and city’s capital-improvement budget, while the rest will be bonded.

Nelson acknowledged that the novelty of a new water park can wear off pretty quickly. “You have to find some ways to add to the facility,” he said. “We just want to make sure we don’t paint ourselves in a corner.” The design and engineering for Whitewater Junction allow the city to add a third water slide, a third spray toy, and another splash pool. The pool should last at least 20 years, Nelson said, and the flexibility will allow the city to keep it fresh and expand it.

But will that keep attendance at levels that allow the city to keep operating the park at a break-even level? Nelson thinks so, and added that the hillside setting is “novel” and features a great view of the river.

There’s also the question of whether these water parks simply cannibalize each other, with the newest stealing customers from the older ones. Nelson downplayed this possibility, saying that the ones being built by cities aren’t “destinations” such as Wacky Waters but parks designed to attract residents of their cities. “The site work and the design were built around our citizens,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t our expectation to pull from other communities.”

Sill, it’s wise for parks to think of customers from other Quad Cities. Rock Island kids have been in school for several weeks, but Nelson said that the Sterling Park District has been bringing a busload of children each day. And based on license-plate surveys, about one of every nine Whitewater Junction customers comes from Iowa. “It’s become a bit of a destination point,” Nelson said.
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