Editor's Note: Parks & Rec Business magazine presents the 12th part in a year-long series of articles that will focus on... Everything H20, from pool equipment, safety, staffing and programming to profiles and perspectives on the latest aquatics facilities, water parks and splash parks in public parks and recreation. The series will continue in 2005 as we cover the latest in aquatics trends, products, facilities and programming.
Everyone knows how easy it is to Monday-morning quarterback. Just ask any Monday-morning quarterback. But what about those Saturday-morning quarterbacks who did their homework (think John Elway) and silenced those who would second-guess them on Monday?
It may be a stretch to liken sports punditry to an aquatics program, but in the case of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, the analogy rings true.
Fresh from a brand-new, multi-million-dollar indoor facility, and having just completed its seventh season running a relatively gigantic outdoor family aquatics center, there is little, if anything, aquatics supervisor Jeanne Wunderle would change. That's not to say that certain items haven't been tweaked. Lessons have been learned that necessitated an operations or programming response, but the foundation has been solid.
Realizing the Research
"The best advice I can give is to go out and look at other facilities, and we looked at about 30 family aquatic centers. We figured out all the pieces and components we wanted, and then we went back and looked closely at operations," says Wunderle.
Working closely with Water Technology Inc., Beaver Dam, Wis., and relying on the firm as a source for effectively designing, maintaining and operating large aquatics facilities, Cuyahoga Falls was able to take advantage of the experiences of Water Technology and their forerunners in parks and recreation to the fullest.
Wunderle cites how users enter the facility as an example, and how concessions can either work for or against a facility's revenue-generation plan.
"What everyone didn't like about their facility was how people got into it. A lot of the entrances were unwieldy, so we paid a lot of attention to how people would get into our facilities, and we were able to bypass those problems," says Wunderle.
"Families come to the pool with strollers, bags and whatnot and a turnstile system just doesn't work. Turnstiles seem to be built to hit little children in the head."
Instead, says Wunderle, Cuyahoga Falls has two points of entry -- an admissions area and a separate pagoda. The admissions area takes care of day users who are more likely to have questions, need change or other line-lengthening situations. The pagoda is for pass holders who can get their pass scanned and get in quickly.
"Members should get that extra perk, and we also offer them entry into the facility a half-hour early. That way, they can get dibs on a good location in the facility. You're saying thank you for being a season pass member," explains Wunderle.
For concessions, Wunderle says they found one operation on their information-gathering travels that broke the mold, where different concession items could be picked up by users individually, rather than a main window for everything. There's a place to get drinks, a place for snacks and all the warm foods are in warmers ready to be picked up and taken to the register.
"A customer enters at one end, and if you just want a bottle of water, you can grab your water and go right through to the other end where the register is. You're not in line with people getting a big order, or can't make their minds up. People don't spend money when they're in line. This allows people to go right through and there are fewer lines," says Wunderle.
Reality Doesn't Bite
Both the outdoor and indoor centers replaced older facilities. The old outdoor pool was a WPA project from the '30s. The indoor facility was built about 30 years ago and had two pools.
The design for each would be built around modern realities. Ironically, these "modern" realities have probably been realities since cities began building swimming pools.
The reality is that most people, when they say they're going swimming, really don't go swimming, in the technical sense. They want to socialize and play in the water, and this has probably been the case for a long time.
Wunderle says they've traditionally been building pools for roughly three percent of the population, which is the percentage most surveys place for pool-goers who primarily swim laps.
The natatorium, which is adjacent to other brand-new indoor recreation areas, like gyms, exercise rooms and weight/cardio areas, now features a 20' x 40' warm-water instructional/therapy pool, a six-lane competition pool, and a leisure pool with geysers, SCS sprays by Koala, a tot slide, three swim lanes and a 190-foot-long slide.
Wunderle says they went with an inner-tube slide because that was, by far, the more popular of the two Whitewater West slides at the outdoor family aquatics center.
"People flock to things they can together, so we put in a flume slide that takes a one- or two-person tube," says Wunderle.
This well-rounded approach to aquatics amenities and features has helped ease potential congestion in the lap-swimming lanes. The other attractions do what they're supposed to do... attract.
"Now I have other spaces to put people, so that the people who were wandering in the lanes are in the current channel or the leisure pool. We also have a bubbler bench in the middle of the current channel. A lot of people like to come to the pool and just visit, and now they have their own conversation pit. I lost a lot of standing and visiting in the lanes. Now the only people in the lanes are people swimming," says Wunderle.
In addition to revenue generators like a lineless concession stand, aquatics programming has boomed beyond expectations. For instance, water fitness classes at the newly-opened natatorium bring in about 800 people per week.
The current channel offers the opportunity for water-walking classes. There's a class every morning in the natatorium at capacity (25 or so participants), and Wunderle plans to add more classes due to its popularity.
Wunderle offers a word of caution regarding the operation and safety of a family aquatics center that has a lot to do with perception. She says that parents don't feel they need to be as diligent at a leisure pool with a zero-depth entry, gradually shallow beach-like area.
"There isn't an edge where you step off the side and go right in, where there isn't that issue in a zero-depth entry. We work closely with our guards so that when they see a little person who isn't connected to an adult, to grab hold of that child and hang onto them until we connect them with an adult," explains Wunderle.
"Toddlers tend to wander out a little bit at a time, and their feet can get knocked out from under them. They may only be in a couple of feet of water, but they often can't get up. We've had a lot of rescues with that scenario; much more than you would in a traditional pool. So we have a policy if they're four years or younger, they need to be within arm's reach, at 5-6 years old parents need to be in the water with them, and at 7-8 years old parents need to have visual contact."
A recently-enacted partnership with a local hospital helps fill the therapy/instructional pool each day, but Wunderle says it's important to remember who's actually and ultimately responsible for each component of a facility to ensure the primary users don't get shortchanged in the process.
"We knew exactly what we wanted and needed in the instructional pool. They had a slightly different vision, and wanted things that were so specific they couldn't be used for anything else other than their programming. Since it's the city's natatorium we wanted to put something there that we could both use, and not make it so specific that it can't be used efficiently by the other," explains Wunderle.
"For instance, they wanted a rail all along three sides, which doesn't affect our ability to have a great program. But they also wanted a lot of stanchions and a big ramp that took up too much space. There was some give and take."
The hospital has exclusive use of the space Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. It's too early to tell how successful the arrangement will be, but the balance between the needs of the community and the hospital's therapeutic program appears to have been met.
The natatorium is located across the street from the city's only high school. The high-school swim team uses the natatorium, while school gyms are used for much of city's leagues and programming.
The parks department also designs and builds each school's playground site. The parks are designed for school use during the school year and community use in the summer. Some of the sites have wading pools, and each site includes a restroom structure and a storage building.