When the Winnebago County Community Park Beach House and Swimming Lake was dedicated in 1968 just north of the city limits in Oshkosh, Wis., it was considered state-of-the-art, and quickly became the most popular destination in the area. Although I was only 4 years old, I remember distinctly my mother tying bright-orange ribbons in my hair so she could see me among all of the swimmers at the beach my first summer. As I was growing up in the 1970s and coming of age in the ‘80s, “County” was the place to be every summer. If one didn’t show up at the beach at least once during summer vacation, one was considered a complete social failure at school in the fall—at least on the north side of town. The south side had Pollack Pool with a high dive and kiddy pool, but the cement made the bottom of a swimsuit pill and smell like bleach. Little did I know then how times change. Forty-four years later, I find myself working for the Winnebago County Parks Department, helping to oversee the transformation of an obsolete local tradition into a one-of-a-kind rental facility that will serve the community for many more generations.
The beach house and lake consisted of a large, solidly built structure with interior space for concessions, restrooms, inside and outside showers, lockers and changing areas, and some really cool outside
The county parks department has succeeded in transforming a 1968 facility into a facility for the new millennium. Photos courtesy of Winnebago County Parks Department.
sinks operated on a foot pump that were large enough to fit about four toddlers. There was what is now called a zero-depth entry, and further out, a line of buoys the lifeguards made children swim to and beyond in order to reach the hallowed diving platform. The lake was and still is all fresh water pumped from a well that overflows a dam into another lake used for fishing and RC boating. There were “piranha perch” in the shallow water that liked to try to nibble one’s freckles, but that just added to the experience. Once the troubles began and the lake had to be drained, the fish progeny were safely moved over the dam to the adjacent lake to resume their lives freckle-free.
A Sinking Ship
By the early- to mid-‘90s, with the onset of video games, the soccer boom, and other distractions, attendance at the beach began to drop, expenses went up, and so did the tax levy. By 1994, expenses totaled more than $55,000, revenue was only about $7,000, and the levy hit $50,000. What was an annual attendance of 13,000 per summer had dwindled to less than half of that number over the average 75 operating days per season. When I joined the parks department in 1999, the beach’s days were numbered. Upon seeing the facility for the first time in 20 years, the changes wrought were significant. What once resembled an imitation tropical paradise, with a dinosaur slide and rotating turtle, now looked like a typical swimming hole from up in the north woods. Due to new safety regulations, the dinosaur and other fiberglass playthings were gone; gone, too, were the giant sinks and outside showers. Safety and access regulations had taken their toll, with ever-tightening budgets making it impossible to replace these structures with newer models. Trees had grown up around the perimeter, which actually helped keep the sand from blowing around. However, the building itself stood solid as ever, unaware of what was in store.
In 2002, budget cuts forced the closure of beach programming, and after two more years of operation, the Oshkosh Area School District took over operations when Pollack Pool closed for a renovation into a new water park. Pollack Community Water Park opened in 2006 to much fanfare and both public and private monetary support. The beach remained closed. Most of the available certified lifeguards
An advertising campaign introduced the pavilion to the community, who responded by hosting weddings, reunions, birthday and graduation parties at the new facility.
were employed at Pollack, and with the popularity of the new water park, the beach just couldn’t compete. In 2008 and 2009, the beach house was officially renamed the Service Center, staffed by two seasonal employees who sold concessions and oversaw the facility as a swim-at-your-own-risk area. Expenses were cut in half from those in 1994, but revenues were also halved, and the levy was costing taxpayers, most of whom were from the local neighborhood, almost $35,000 for the 1,000 to 2,000 attendees who used the facility. After consultations with council on possible liability issues of swim-at-your-own-risk, a wrenching decision was made.
In 2009, the county board tasked the parks and recreation committee to create an ad hoc group to decide the fate of the beach. Eventually, after several meetings and much discussion, the decision was made to close beach operations—permanently.
Turning The Tide
In 2010, the facility remained closed, and the parks department began to transform the building into a pavilion available for the public to rent. The beach area was fenced off to limit access to the lake for safety reasons. What remained was a spectacular setting for community use. Using part-time labor and a crew from the local corrections facility during the off-season, the building was painted, updated for access, and refurbished inside and out. It went from a turquoise-blue exterior with air-brushed fish murals to a deep-green with bright-white interior. A mobile kitchen island and outside grill were added. The lake was drained to remove the liability of the diving platform (hence the bucket-brigade fish rescue) and refilled. Picnic tables with umbrellas for the patio and volleyball nets for use on the sand were procured. In 2011, an advertising campaign took place, and the pavilion was successful beyond our expectations, topping revenue estimates and attendance figures. Weddings, reunions, birthday and graduation parties were held, and the pavilion served as headquarters for larger park events like disc-golf tournaments and soccer festivals. All who used the facility raved about its amenities, serene location, and ample space. Plans are in the works to transform the former exterior showers into private terraces a la Europe, and more access updates continue to be made.
What once had been an obsolete building is now a thriving facility that the public loves to use, and is once again a one-of-a-kind for the community. Through the innovative use of part-time labor, as well as some corrections project crews and a little ingenuity, the county parks department has succeeded in transforming a 1968 facility into a facility for the new millennium. If you find yourself in possession of a facility that has gone out of fashion, it is possible to modernize and revive it. With today’s budgets, you just have to take it slow, be innovative, and look through new eyes. Though the lifeguards, dinosaur slide, and hallowed diving platform are gone, new memories are now being made for an entirely new generation. I will, however, never forget those dopey orange ribbons.
Vicky Redlin is the assistant manager for the Winnebago County Parks Department in Oshkosh, Wis. Reach her at email@example.com.