A Star-Studded Lineup

Photos Courtesy of the City of Carlsbad

Aquatic facilities and community parks across the country are not merely locations for exercise and well-being for the average resident, but they can also foster dreams, sports achievements, careers, and even international fame for the elite athlete. And just as these athletes train for years, the public agencies that plan, construct, and operate aquatic and community centers must work diligently to see a project through to completion and successful long-term operation.

Such was the case with the city of Carlsbad, Calif., a coastal community of nearly 110,000 located in northern San DiegoCounty. The city has become a hub for endurance-sports companies, and global sports icons like Olympic gold medalists Shaun White and Michellie Jones, and skateboarding mogul Tony Hawk, have enjoyed the area for years.

Less visible than these world champions and innovative startups are the stories of city managers and staff members who have worked for more than 10 years to make their newest community park a reality.

The 32-acre AlgaNorteCommunityPark was completed in December 2013, and today offers a variety of programs for community members to help them as they strive to reach their ultimate potential. The case study of this $40-million facility offers important lessons for public agencies nationwide: be tenacious, be willing to revamp business models, and consider creative programming t that has the same lofty ambitions as those of the athletes who train there.

Designed To Inspire

The cornerstone of Alga Norte is its aquatic center. The facility is ideal for training with a 56-meter competition pool, a 25-yard, 12-lane instruction pool, a warm-water spa for adults, and a fitness room designed for aquatic strength training. Once the center opened, competitive swimmers and divers immediately filled the pool schedule, along with professional teams and athletes in training.

The swimming programs begin with infant lessons, providing opportunities to experience the pool and become comfortable in the water, and continue with adult and senior activities. Group and individual swimming lessons are offered year-round, taking advantage of Carlsbad’s mild climate, along with aquatic camps, a deep-water boot camp, deep diving, lifeguard training, and unique classes like pool-paddleboard yoga.

A facility brimming with activity and multiple revenue-generating programs was not easy to achieve. In fact, there was a time of uncertainty as to the best way to make the park a reality.

“The original plans for operating Alga Norte were well in excess of $1 million per year,” says Chris Hazeltine, director of the parks and recreation department. “Once the recession hit, we recognized that although we had the funding to build this facility, there could be a shortfall in what would be required for ongoing operations and maintenance. So we had to focus on an evolved business model and get creative to make sure the project would achieve end-to-end financial success.”

Long recognized as a fiscally prudent local government, the city challenged its department managers and staff members to crunch financial models to look for ways to maximize revenue and minimize expenses. This re-evaluation process included receiving proposals from outside operators to consider innovative solutions and potential partnerships to help assure the long-term viability of the new park.

“This is easily the most analyzed public project I have ever heard of,” says Carl Pope, aquatic supervisor. “We spent so much time looking at it in so many different ways, and ultimately the business model had to strive for self-sufficiency and seek to achieve 100-percent cost recovery.”

This effort marked the first time the city employed this approach. After a year’s worth of evaluation, the parks and recreation department realized it could best operate the new facility by striking the correct balance of revenue generation and community service and participation. The experience led to creative solutions and a more entrepreneurial mindset for city staff members focused on meeting the city’s overall recreational needs.

Lessons Learned

So how can other public agencies re-evaluate their business models and foster opportunities for the next Olympic medalist or sports-industry mogul to thrive at their community facility? Below are three key lessons that can apply to any new aquatic facility or community park.

1. Find a balance among multiple uses; this is an ongoing challenge.

A lesson in fiscal responsibility and entrepreneurial thinking was most prominent throughout this experience. Many of the employees had to shift their approach from what they had experienced earlier in their careers.

“This new model is not common for municipalities,” explains Hazeltine. “Within just these first months of operation, we are on track to meet our cost-recovery goals, but not without the continual challenge to find the right balance between achieving full programming during peak periods and maintaining enough time and space open for community drop-in use of the pools.”

As managers and staff members analyzed different business models, they sought the highest revenue-potential uses of the pools and other assets at the proposed park. “Program every lane, every hour” was a real challenge, while also assuring the facility would be available and accessible to other community members.

Pope elaborates: “I often measure how well I am doing my job based on direct feedback from the community, and I know I am doing a good job if everyone is equally (un)happy! There is a give and take that has to happen at a public facility like the community pool, and we constantly work to achieve balance for all needs.”

Calculating revenue models for the variety of activities also required a balance of needs, extensive data analysis, and long-range planning.

“In order to find the right balance on pricing structures,” Pope explains, “we look at the market, conduct surveys, and try to compare similar use models. But because there are so few city facilities seeking 100-percent cost recovery, the truth is it is difficult to find truly similar programs to achieve a true ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison.  Carlsbad is pioneering this entrepreneurial model.”

Another forward-thinking and unique approach that the city adopted was granting Hazeltine, as parks and recreation director, expanded fee authority, which allows him to establish pricing strategies based on real-time market conditions. This is yet another way that the city is acting like a business, allowing its director to offer promotional pricing and take immediate advantage of revenue opportunities unencumbered by red tape or lengthy approval processes.

While setting daily-use fees, the city balances the desire from some community members to have all access for free, while others want to purchase monthly membership passes with

assurances that there will be a limit on the number of passes sold. The key to balancing the multiple needs and desires, adds Pope, is to continually educate the public on the rate structures and program offerings to help achieve realistic expectations.

People have been overwhelmingly supportive of all aspects of the new park and understand that a popular community facility will mean that sometimes lap swimmers have to share lanes or children will have less space for recreation swim “free play” when there is a swimming lesson or competitive training session taking place.

2. Begin communication efforts early and recognize it is an ongoing effort.

Whether communities are in the planning stage of a similar facility, or in the later phases of construction or implementation, it is important to maintain public communication throughout. The park was initially envisioned to include primarily water-focused attractions. But as community members expressed their needs and desires, the skate park gained prominence, and a dog park was included in the final design.

Carlsbad officials held extensive public meetings beginning in 2000. Open houses, site tours, and community charrettes were also utilized early.

The communication regarding this project was a two-way effort that incorporated input from experts found in unexpected places. For example, being a hub for the action-sports industry allowed the city to draw on expertise within the community to create and design a top-notch facility. Professional skateboarders were valuable in providing input on the skate-park design and on getting the word out about the new park and its many features.

Local families also provided input on details such as placement of shade structures, playground equipment, and picnic areas. As a result of this extensive feedback, the “shade crusade” (as it was known) resulted in more shade constructed for the tot lot, as well as near the concession and ball fields. Parents also wanted the skate park to be located at the same area as the playground so they could keep an eye on their children.

By the time of the groundbreaking in 2012, the community had developed many communication channels for receiving information and providing input.

The city, alongside the community, embraced social media and interactive tools to keep the public informed about the park and other initiatives. In the end, not only was an impressive community park constructed with public input at each step, but the city’s overall communications efforts had attained the second largest Facebook following in California. The city continues to obtain feedback on programs at the park via YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, and Vine.

3. Have fun whenever and wherever possible!

As important as the training amenities are at the aquatic center, there is also something for those who just want to have fun. Visitors often see huge, colorful inflatable structures and water balls in the pools that are available during open time, or can be rented for birthday parties and corporate events. Although the inflatable structures take up valuable space (65 feet long, 20 feet tall, with multiple lanes), the city decided to make the investment.

But as Pope describes, “These items allow for added revenue potential, but also bring back the fun factor to the pool, and that is something that ends up being invaluable to our ultimate goal of serving the community.”

Posters and banners throughout the facility show happy people and pets enjoying the park. At the grand opening, 1,000 rubber ducks were dropped from a helicopter into one of the pools, which provided a breathtaking scene that ended with prizes for winners based on the numbers on the bottom of each duck.

“We want to be sure there is fun to be had in the pool,” says Hazeltine. “After all, we are the parks and recreation department, and to a large degree that means fun and games. So if people of all ages see the pool as a place to have fun, this becomes the foundation for more targeted and individualized programming, serving anyone and everyone in the community.”

By engaging the public with fun attractions like 20-foot-tall inflatables and water balls, many residents will be inclined to explore the next level of aquatic engagement and seek more structured instructional and fitness programming. They might further decide to join a competitive team or pursue a career in the aquatic field, become a global champion or launch a startup that helps improve the aquatic industry in some way.

Liz Ketabian is Park Planning Manager for the City of Carlsbad, a community of 107,000 people in north coastal San Diego County.  Liz oversees planning and development of the city's park system as well as overseeing the city’s 46 miles of trails. Prior to moving to Carlsbad with her husband and three children in 2000, she worked on public parks projects and for a public housing authority in Toledo, Ohio.


More Than Just the Local Pool

In addition to the aquatic center, additional features at AlgaNorteCommunityPark include a skate park, dog park, playgrounds, picnic shelters, full-court basketball, baseball, and multi-use athletic fields with full concessions.

Local legend Tony Hawk was among a group of local professional skateboarders who collaborated with the city during park design. Born in Carlsbad in 1968, Hawk has been awarded the National Skateboard Association world championship for 12 consecutive years, and recalled skating in Carlsbad during his youth, just like another internationally renowned athlete, Shaun White.

As it turns out, Hawk and White became friends at a local skate park in the Carlsbad region. From those early days skating around San Diego and skiing on the mountains of Southern California, the young men’s careers skyrocketed, and they took an entire industry with them.

It is often said that Hawk is responsible for the mass commercialization and global success of the skateboarding industry. In 2003, White, a pro skateboarder at 17, became the first athlete ever to compete and medal in both the Summer X Games and Winter X Games in two different sports. With these success stories, suddenly a younger generation saw the possibilities for a career track in skateboarding, surfing, and/or snowboarding.

Today, Olympic medalists, like Jessica Hardy and Michellie Jones, can be seen training in Carlsbad pools. Jones, a Carlsbad resident, won the 2006 Ironman World Championship and two ITU Triathlon World Championships. Hardy, who swam a mixed medley relay at the Alga Norte grand opening on Jan.11, 2014, won a gold medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics for the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay. She has earned 26 medals at multiple Olympics, World Championships, and Pan Pacific Championships.

Another famous athlete at Alga Norte is Apolo Ohno, eight-time speed skating Olympic medalist and winner of the 2007 Dancing with the Stars . The cameras that followed Ohno around Alga Norte in early 2014 were recording his training for the Hawaii Ironman competition. For local kids who had recently seen him on television providing coverage of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia,  he is yet another inspirational figure swimming at the local pool.