PRB Articles


Pleasing And Practical

Today’s aquatic center has the potential to become an important part of a community, to improve the quality of life, and to provide recreation for “children of all ages and abilities.” Especially in today’s economy--when the family budget is already strained--the successful aquatic center is an inexpensive alternative to commercial recreation, and viewed as a pillar of the community, bringing focus to family values, neighborhood pride and wellness.

With families traveling fewer and shorter distances, the term “staycation” (a vacation taken at home) is commonplace, and there is a real demand for nearby recreation. A tremendous opportunity for municipalities exists to capitalize on the commercial market. Begin by educating the public on what you have to offer.

An aquatic center also can help bolster the economic conditions of an entire neighborhood. In Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County, the David F. Schulz Aquatic Center at Lincoln Park won the 2010 State Farm Insurance Building Blocks Award Large Project. The award recognizes outstanding development toward rebuilding neighborhoods, and is awarded by LISC Milwaukee, an organization that helps transform distressed urban neighborhoods into healthy communities. Previously, the park drew only from its immediate neighborhood. The new facility has a regional draw that brings outside residents into the pool, the neighborhood, as well as surrounding businesses. The residents have a new sense of pride that results in a sense of ownership and responsibility for the property.

The New Way Of Doing Business

As municipalities rethink their strategies and start operating more as businesses, they must also provide community recreation at an affordable price.

There are three ways to increase income:

•    Increase the number of new clients and customers.

•    Increase the value of each sale made to clients and customers.

•    Increase the number of times that clients and customers buy from you.

This may seem like a daunting task given the reality of cutbacks in budgets and staff. Controlling expenses and increasing revenue are the only solution, but many cities find themselves in a Catch-22 due to a lack of resources.

This didn’t stop Doug Johnson, Director of Parks, Recreation and Forestry in Aberdeen, S.D., when the department was preparing to open its new facility in 2007. The department applied for the state’s Matching Dollar Challenge, and awarded a tourism grant to market the opening of the facility. With this grant, the department was able to promote the facility on television, in print and with printed cards at concierge desks in hotel lobbies. The aquatic center now draws guests from a 100-mile radius. The key to this, Doug says, is in the marketing. “We continue to have a strong marketing program, which helps to boost our attendance. We have a close relationship with our convention and visitors bureau. They market our community along with the aquatic center, and have also received grants for marketing.” Be sure to do your homework and search for available funds.

Johnson also recommends promoting rental shelters to businesses for company parties. He says that this has brought in many people who were not familiar with the facility. And once people see it, they may come back.

Who Are You?

It is not uncommon for aquatic centers to lack an identity and visibility in neighborhoods. Does the pool (not the recreation department) have a specific logo? If not, make one. Think about the large commercial waterparks and their logos, slogans and even iconic characters. Guests recognize this identity, and it establishes an immediate need to have fun in the water. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a "name, term, sign, symbol or design, or a combination of them intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers, and to differentiate them from those of other sellers.” Branding isn’t only for commercial businesses anymore.

Work with the department, staff and even guests to establish a brand for the aquatic facility. Take this brand beyond a logo and tagline. Extend it to employee communications and customer interactions. If the tagline is “that fun place,” then make sure it is a fun place at which to work and to visit. Offer incentive programs for employees, provide customer-relations workshops, and develop a “company philosophy” that will be maintained.

Facility Audit

A pool evaluation can help operators of aging aquatic facilities determine whether a renovation--or a rebuild--is in order.

For years, facility operators have attempted to blend new concepts into aquatic centers in an effort to serve a multitude of generations and user groups. Yet, despite countless surveys that indicate swimming is one of the all-time favorite recreational activities in the U.S., attendance at many older public pools continues to decline--in large part because they are failing to meet the needs of their communities.

It is time for operators to re-evaluate outdated, underutilized municipal swimming pools. Many of them are in declining physical condition and struggling to compete with new family aquatic centers that likely feature the amenities of full-scale water parks.

Where To Begin

The first step in evaluating an aquatic facility is recognizing that the pool and its amenities may no longer serve users. This can be difficult to accept, but a closer look at the deteriorating condition of the pool structure, the unappealing changing area and locker-room facilities and the outdated mechanical systems will likely support an argument for improvement.

But before calling in a professional consulting team, a facility operator can troubleshoot several components of a pool on his or her own, including checking for shell leaks, conducting operational-safety and risk-management audits, performing life-expectancy evaluations, surveying users, and evaluating chemical-safety and accessibility issues (see the do-it-yourself sidebar).

First impressions are vital, so when taking that closer look, try to see the facility as a guest would, walking through the main entrance for the first time. Do ugly fencing and a lack of shade, deck chairs or other resting spots detract from the experience? Do dingy changing areas and locker rooms encourage swimmers to wear their suits to the facility in an effort to avoid those areas? Identify potential reasons for attendance declines, and use them as a foundation on which to develop a plan.

Programming For Profit

In some cases, the pool itself may still be in sound structural condition and operating effectively, but it does not meet the market expectations of increasingly sophisticated users. Successful aquatic centers offer programming for families, learn-to-swim students, competitive swimmers, water-fitness enthusiasts, seniors and therapy patients, as well as people who just want to get wet and have fun.

Once the need for change has been established, seek out staff members, facility users and residents of the community-at-large for input. Employees will draw from firsthand experience with operational problems; pool users will provide insight into what elements of the facility and programs are not meeting their needs; and local residents who don’t patronize the facility will offer reasons why they don’t. Do not be afraid to use questionnaires and form discussion committees. By demonstrating to all parties involved that you are serious about making improvements, they will be more likely to champion the cause.

Next, if necessary, ask community members to rally public support for a professional pool and operations/programming evaluation. Many users, for example, may not realize that a facility is on the brink of closing due to declining revenues, or understand the programming and financial goals that may be realized with a renovated or new facility. That’s why it is crucial to honestly report the pool’s specific shortcomings, share how a professional evaluation will result in a better facility, and help people envision how its revitalization will improve the community’s collective wellness and quality of life. This can be done through newsletters, public forums, local media outlets and word of mouth.

A professional, comprehensive pool and operations evaluation will help determine the life expectancy of an existing aquatic facility, as well as inventory a community’s future wants and needs.

Even small renovation projects can have a large impact. Just ask the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority staff. Due to low attendance and doubt that improvements to the pool facility in Pohick Bay Regional Park would increase attendance, the authority once considered removing the facility and filling it in. However, after some time, the decision was made to go ahead with the renovation despite the small budget. Replete with a new look of pirates and with a sand play area where kids can dig for treasures, the park opened in 2009. The scope may have been small, but the impact was great. Within a year, attendance at the attraction had more than doubled, and season-pass sales went from 47 in fiscal 2007 to 515 in fiscal 2009.

The pools of yesteryear cannot always satisfy the majority of today’s swimmers, simply because they were not designed for broad, contemporary-user demographics. Improvements--mechanical, operational and programmatic--can revitalize a pool into a robust aquatic center that will improve the quality of life for its staff, patrons and municipal stakeholders--even in this struggling economy. And it will ensure a healthy and vital aquatic recreation environment for future generations of swimmers who have yet to stride through the facility’s main entrance for the first time.

Melinda Kempfer is the Business Development Coordinator for Water Technology Inc., aquatic planners, designers and engineers, located in Beaver Dam, Wis. She has had the privilege of working with several municipal parks and recreation entities to realize their goals for a project from the business development through the completion phase. She can be reached via e-mail at mkempfer@watertechnologyinc.

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Do-It-Yourself Aquatic Evaluations

Pool-Leak Troubleshooting

It is best to conduct this test over a constant time period, and if possible when the pool is not in service. Ensure that pool filters are not backwashed during the test sequence.

1. Does the pool leak?

•    Turn off the automatic water-fill device.

•    Fill a 5-gallon bucket with pool water about 90 percent full, and mark the level. Place the bucket close to the pool.

•    Mark the level on the pool wall.

•    Test for 24 hours. Measure the pool and bucket water levels.

If the pool loses more water than the bucket does, then there is a good chance the pool has a leak.

2. Is the pool leaking through the structure or the inlet plumbing?

•    Turn off the automatic water-fill device.

•    Mark the pool water level.

•    Record the water level after 24 hours.

•    Fill the pool to the same level, and turn off all circulation equipment.

•    Record the water level after 24 hours.

If the recorded pool water is the same in both cases, then the water loss may be a pool-shell leak. If the pool-water loss is greater when the circulation system is operational, then the water loss may be an inlet pipe leak. If the water loss is greater when the circulation pump is off and there is typically air in the system, this is a good indicator that there may be a suction pipe that is leaking.

Note: These tests can be confirmed by hiring a company that does leak and pressure testing.

Operational Safety Audit

•    Review incident reports or insurance-claim reports to determine the frequency of issues occurring over the past five years.

•    Evaluate for any reoccurring claims or issues.

If there are several reoccurring issues or claims, it would be advisable to determine why these are happening. Analyze whether the problem is operational or facility-related. For example, if users are constantly requiring Band-Aids after riding the slide, then it is facility-related. If the reports show that there are numerous people collisions in the diving well, this is most likely operational in nature. The attached form will help operators do a preliminary audit to assist in determining potential liability, and they should contact a consultant for assistance.

Service-Life and Market-Obsolescence Evaluation

The following are effective indicators that a community should consider a facility audit and master-planning effort. There are numerous ways to phrase these questions, and these should be used as a base to develop more specific questions pertinent to the community and facilities.

Service-Life Questions

1.    Does the facility require extensive repair work to open each year?

2.    Does the repair expense annually exceed the revenue?

3.    Do staff members need to respond to user injuries because of repairable conditions at the facility?

4.    Is there a concern that the facility will open or remain open each year?

5.    Are there reoccurring incident reports due to damaged conditions at the facility?

If the answer is “yes” to three or more of these questions, the facility may be at the end of its useful service life. If the answer is “no” to three or more of the questions, then the facility can be revitalized to serve the community.

Market-Obsolescence Questions

1.    Do members of the community drive to a newer leisure pool instead of your community’s aquatic facility?

2.    Has aquatic-facility attendance been decreasing over the past five years, even during hot summers?

3.    Are most user visits to the pool less than two hours?

4.    Is your outdoor aquatic-facility cost-recovery rate below 60 percent?

5.    Do most parents drop off their children at your aquatic facility instead of joining them?

6.    Do younger users complain that there is nothing to do at the pool?

If the answer is “yes” to three or more of these questions, the facility may be at the end of its useful market life. If the answer is “no” to three or more of the questions, then the facility can be revitalized to serve the community.

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