In 1999, when Jeff Jacobson was first elected mayor of North Pole, Alaska, he and his staff put together a wish list of projects. High on that list was a water slide for Wescott Pool. Today, that wish is a reality.
“I feel a real sense of accomplishment,” says Jacobson. “Our quality of life has improved, kids are excited to go to the pool, and the slide is something we are all proud of. It took a long time for us to get here, but with a lot of help from a lot of people, we made it.”
Jacobson’s motivation for the project was to find something that would inspire locals to learn how to swim since the city is surrounded by water.
When North Pole was awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for the water slide, the Fairbanks North Star Borough (FNSB) committed funds for additional pool improvements, including new stainless-steel gutters with additional surge capacity, a Portland cement pool liner and lane markers, a roof coating to extend the life of the roof and environmental control upgrades to improve comfort and energy efficiency.
“People were excited when they heard about the slide and all of the other upgrades,” says Michelle Leonard, FNSB Parks and Recreation Aquatics Director. “They were a little apprehensive to be losing the facility for six months during the renovation process, but I think that now that the project is finished, they would agree that it was well worth the wait.”
Well worth the wait, indeed. The number of people using the pool has increased by 40 percent since the project was completed, with no sign of slowing down.
“On a Wednesday night, which was always a slow night -- it is the middle of the week, a work night and a school night -- we will have 65 people in the pool. When we’re really busy, sometimes we have to turn people away,” says Leonard. “During the week, most of the people are from North Pole, but on Friday nights and the weekends, we get people driving in from Fairbanks, just to use the slide.”
Despite numerous opportunities for outdoor water sports during the summer, Wescott is anticipating a busy summer and will be opening the slides in the afternoons and evenings.
Breaking It Down
Although Wescott pool attendance and operation appear to be smooth swimming from here on out, the project itself was not without challenges. Many of the key project components had long lead times -- as most Alaskans will attest, it can be frustrating to order a product from the “Lower 48” and know that meeting your deadline is dependent on its timely arrival. When that product is what will become the northernmost water slide in America, and the installation window consists of four days, waiting for its delivery can begin to fray nerves. Fortunately for the architects and engineers at USKH Inc., the design firm hired for the project, other components of the project kept them occupied.
“This project was a challenge,” says Gary Pohl, AIA and project manager for USKH. “We looked at various configurations for how to integrate a new slide into the existing pool facility, which was constructed in 1975, and there was a myriad of technical and permitting issues to be solved.”
The site of Wescott pool has a high water table, which means that when the pool is drained, the water in the ground will literally float the concrete shell of the pool up and out of the ground. This problem was addressed by continuously running a dewatering well to lower the water table around the pool.
“We pumped thousands of gallons of water a day to keep the shell from floating out,” says Chris Lease, construction administrator for the project. “And that was just one thing to worry about.”
Due to the space constraints of the existing double-door entry to the pool, the only piece of excavating equipment that could be used for demolishing and removing the existing pool deck to install the pump pit and footing for the water slide was a Bobcat; at its maximum reach, the Bobcat could not extend the required depth for the footing for the slides. The solution was a good, old-fashioned shovel.
“There were about four or five laborers from Chugach Industries, our contractor, who were digging the hole, and they had to dig for about eight hours, which is pretty atypical for jobs like this; usually they would use a backhoe, and it would be finished in about 30 minutes. I don’t think that they were thrilled to be digging all day -- not that I blame them,” says Lease.
Another interesting aspect of the project is the stainless-steel gutters. Selected as a cost-effective means to address ongoing surge-capacity issues, the gutters were intentionally ordered longer than needed, so that they could be custom-trimmed to fit the exact dimensions of Wescott pool.
“When we got the gutters, we got Neil [Brandenburger],” says Lease. “Neil’s job is to travel to wherever these gutters are being installed and trim them to fit. He does this all over the county; he was in Houston, Texas, the week before, and then flew up to North Pole to work on Wescott. I have no idea where Neil is now, but he goes wherever there is a gutter job, and there is always a gutter job -- somewhere.”
“My favorite part of this job was commissioning the water slide,” laughs Lease. “That’s a technical term for start-up and testing -- basically that means I got to participate in a slide operation class with Michelle and the Wescott pool folks, and then I got to go down the slide about half a dozen times -- it was a lot of fun. I can see why people keep going back to the slide -- even though you may have already been down it multiple times, it never loses its appeal.”
“As an architect, I especially enjoy projects that make a positive impact on the quality of life for communities,” says Pohl. “This project really does that -- it helps with water safety, health, and is a fun place for people to get together.” Jacobson agrees. “The water slide is a huge draw for families -- both kids and parents are able to strengthen and develop their swimming skills. It’s also a great way to promote a healthy lifestyle.”
Covering All The Bases
In Alaska -- a state that is host to more than 33,000 miles of coastline, more than 3,000 rivers and more than three million lakes -- it is important for residents to know how to swim. From kayaking and rafting to jet skiing and motor boating, Alaskans have unlimited opportunities to be on the water. In addition to recreation, many Alaskans use waterways as a means of transportation, and others depend on them to support subsistence hunting and fishing.
Unfortunately, Alaska's drowning rate for children and teenagers is almost two and a half times the national average and significantly higher than that of any other state.
“The slide is a good motivator for people to learn how to swim,” says Leonard. “Everyone must pass a swim test before they are allowed to go down it. There is no way to fully prepare for a boating accident, especially if it is in freezing water, but at least people can learn to stay afloat, swim, and be comfortable in the water. Of course, they should always wear a life vest as well!”
“Not only are pools important in terms of learning water safety, they are great places to get exercise,” explains Leonard. “We have a water aerobics class and daily lap swim -- both are extremely popular.”
In Alaska, where obesity is a statewide problem, it is essential to have a variety of indoor exercise options available, especially during the long winters. “On days when it is -40 F, it’s pretty hard to get motivated to go outside to run or ski,” says Pohl. “I know a lot of people who head to the pool to get their workout in. Some people just go to the pool to have fun and play, but even just playing in the pool is great exercise. Anything we can do to stay active in the winter is a big help in staying fit.”
“I think that one of the most important aspects of the pool is that our whole community gets involved, from kids to teenagers to the elderly. It is a safe place for people to go, it is constructive, and it offers endless opportunities for family time -- you just can’t put a price on that,” says Leonard.
And Jeff Jacobson? Now back to only teaching after an eight-year stint as both mayor and teacher, he is looking forward to the summer when his children and grandchildren will return to North Pole. “We are definitely planning multiple trips to the slide!”
Gretchen Wieman is a Marketing Coordinator for USKH Inc. A lifelong Alaskan, she lives, works, and plays in Anchorage. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Fairbanks North Star Borough
City of North Pole, Alaska
Fairbanks North Star Borough Park and Recreation Department
300 East 8th Avenue
North Pole, Alaska
Pool Specialist--Water Technologies Inc.
Contractor--Chugach Industries Inc.
Design--September 6, 2006-January 19, 2007
Construction--March 15, 2007-August 8, 2007