Aging Facilities

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

In the 1980s and ‘90s there was a surge of water park projects and attractions across the United States that catered to public demands for fun; these facilities went beyond common rectangular swimming pools as places to beat the heat. 

Each park was different—some were public at either the local or state level, others were private businesses, and still others were public-private partnerships. And while some featured a simple winding water slide added to an existing pool, other facilities featured more, such as several higher, spiraling slides, zero-depth pools, and a variety of “spray” features. Some were built from the ground-up strictly as water parks while others were added to an existing facility. In more recent years, “spray parks” have become the rage.

What all of the facilities now have in common 15, 25, or 30 years later is they demand varying—and generally significant—levels of maintenance, repairs, renovations, or a complete replacement. Sometimes the maintenance isn’t immediately apparent unless facility managers know what to look for.

As often happens with facilities developed due to heavy public demand, they were frequently built in the heat of the moment with some kind of infused funding that was outside the normal budget cycle. There may have been a funding mechanism, such as a general obligation bond approved by the public or a local option sales tax, or perhaps resources were obtained from other enterprise revenues or private donations.              

Some of the return-on-investment reviews, if conducted at all, may have factored in long-term maintenance or replacement costs and inflation. However, most people would not have foreseen the events as the New Millennium dawned, terrorism struck, the economy tanked in 2008, and myriad other factors caused local, state, and federal coffers to dry up—pun intended.

Many of the water attractions were probably predicted to be “money makers,” to be self-sustaining and self-funding, or to break even. However, most planners who looked through rose-colored glasses during the last two decades of the ‘90s would not have accurately predicted the high cost of keeping the attractions safe, functional, and attractive.

So, today, owners and managers of water parks and attractions are constantly looking for new ways to maintain, improve, or upgrade the “curb appeal”—especially safety—of their facilities; in some cases the decision is to phase them out.

Watering Down Wild Waters

That is the case with Wild Waters Water Park in Silver Springs, Fla. Opened in the late ‘70s, the park features waterslides, a restaurant, a 450,000-gallon wave pool, and other associated facilities. At one time it was the place to go in central Florida.

However, as larger parks, such as Disney World and Universal Studios, opened just two hours away and became more and more popular, the smaller attractions began to have financial troubles. So surmises Martha Robinson, Communications Manager in the Bureau of Operational Services at Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.

“Twenty years ago, the land where Silver Springs sits was purchased by the state of Florida and leased back to a private company that continued to run it as an attraction,” she explains. “We knew someday we would want access to that natural resource.” About the same time the state obtained nearby land where nature-based activities, such as kayaking and canoeing, were developed.

The resource is indeed natural. Silver Springs is a 350-acre park featuring crystal-clear springs that enable visitors on glass-bottom boat cruises to see to the bottom of the lakes. So in the last few years when the private company no longer wanted to lease the land from the state, decisions had to be made about what to do with the area. The Silver Springs attraction officially became a part of the Florida parks system in October 2012.

“The attraction was joined with an existing state park that already had camping, cabins, nature trails, and a variety of nature-based recreation activities,” Robinson explains. The new combined park was renamed Silver Springs State Park.

This was a big decision, but it wasn’t made in a vacuum. Exercising due diligence, the state parks staff held four public workshops and presentations between December 2012 and August 2013 to gather public comment. “We presented the interim management plan, the design and construction plans, and the Basin Management Action Plan to address water quality and quantity,” notes Robinson.

Additionally, a citizen advisory group met five times between October 2013 and April 2014. These stakeholders included government officials, local business owners, adjacent land owners, volunteers, land-management agencies, and environmental, cultural, educational, and recreational user groups, according to information provided by the Florida environmental-protection department.

“There was lots of public interest from around the state,” Robinson recalls. “People wanted to know what we were going to do with this resource.”

After painstaking efforts, the advisory group members agreed that the focus would be protection and restoration of Silver Springs while providing nature-based recreation. “Most critically, Silver Springs has the ability to become the gateway to the numerous outdoor recreational opportunities within the large network of conservation lands that characterize the region,” Robinson asserts.

For Wild Waters Water Park, this decision directed the beginning of the end for the 30-year-old facility. “The Advisory Group recommended, and the Department agrees, that Wild Waters should be phased out of operation over time,” Robinson provided in a written statement. “This aging facility draws more than 2-million gallons of water from the City of Ocala’s supplies, circulates it in the water park, and disposes of it through the sewer system. This is seen as detrimental to the overall goal of protecting and restoring the Silver Springs.”

During the phase-out period starting in April 2014, a commercial construction company was contracted to make improvements to the facilities so they could be opened for the summer season. Robinson says that, at a cost of $609,000 and completed in August, the improvements were extensive. They included repairing wood rot, painting, correcting life-safety issues, doing plumbing and electrical repairs, refurbishing pools, repairing structural issues to all flumes and slides, replacing and/or repairing all water-treatment equipment and valves, improving landscaping, and cleaning up the property.

From here on out, as facilities become too expensive to repair, they will be taken out of commission, dismantled, and not replaced.

What the park will eventually look like is yet to be determined. Robinson suggests there will be more public meetings to determine that approach several years down the road. With 171 state parks and trails, and every one of them needing attention, Wild Waters may become a smaller piece of a bigger pie.

Across The Country

So exactly what does an agency need to pay attention to when evaluating the lifespan of an aquatic facility? As the aquatic maintenance technician in the Public Works, Parks and Recreation Department for the City of Henderson, Nev., Dan Frentiu is deeply involved in aquatic-facility life cycles and the ways to evaluate their condition.

Henderson is the second largest city in Nevada, after Las Vegas, with a population of 270,000, who, predictably, look for ways to cool off in the hot desert climate. They do so at 11 different indoor (year-round) and outdoor seasonal facilities, featuring a plethora of different slides, splash pads, chutes, and other attractions. 

Frentiu concedes that the issues he faces in the dry climate of Nevada are not exactly the same as the challenges of a waterpark technician in Maine, Minnesota, or some other place with a different climate. “But generally speaking, the maintenance challenges with these facilities will be very similar,” he says.

Frentiu suggests that regardless of locale, there are some common maintenance, aesthetic, and safety issues that need to be addressed—and the sooner the better. Some include faded paint and finishes, cracked and dried plastic and rubber fittings, worn resilient rubber surfaces, moss and algae that make surfaces slippery, calcification and buildup of scale on water nozzles, fixtures, walls and floors—and the list goes on.

“Maintaining equipment should start before day one,” Frentiu asserts. “New products do not necessarily come pre-lubricated or adjusted, so taking the time to install them as if servicing them will go a long way.”

But in some circumstances, such as the takeover of Silver Springs by the State of Florida, there may not be accurate records of equipment. In other cases, as people come and go in an organization, corporate knowledge of equipment conditions may fall between the cracks. So at some point, a comprehensive evaluation of the facility is necessary.

A facility owner or manager who is preparing to evaluate a facility for possible repairs, upgrades, renovations, or de-commissioning should consider the following suggestions:

“First, consult with the maintenance personnel who have been maintaining the equipment for advice on what works and what does not,” he suggests. “Engineers and architects are not always the best resource for maintenance issues, as their focus is the overall construction and related budget restrictions, often being forced to select more economical equipment initially.”

Another important task that can often be well-intended but badly accomplished is maintaining statistical reports on each fixture or piece of equipment to “establish a reliable schedule of repairs and learn from mistakes,” according to Frentiu. Whether this information is documented at installation or after the fact, life-cycle expectancy should be anticipated. “Following manufacturers’ recommendations on frequency of service or replacement will go a long way when defending warranty issues,” he explains.

There really aren’t sets of decision-making templates for managers to determine whether to repair, replace, or shut down a facility. “Cost is always a driving force behind such decisions,” Frentiu suggests, adding that establishing a value-based point where the cost of repair may equal or exceed the cost of replacement will help guide decisions. 

Water park owners and managers also strive to stay abreast of ever-improving products and materials to extend the life of water attractions. But just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s the best. “Sometimes, being the first to try something new isn’t always wise,” notes Frentiu. “When it comes to water parks and features, unless you’re confident it works, it’s better to base a decision on experience. Take advantage of the resources available from suppliers and vendors, and ask for references and testimonials from previous customers.”

Memories Are Worth The Money

People today want to get out and enjoy the water just as much as people did in the ‘80s, but today’s technology and new ideas provide vast opportunities for water-attraction owners and managers. In this “everything water” issue of PRB, readers can find many ideas, concepts, and perspectives to spark a new way of looking at old facilities. However, while the water parks of yesterday may be in need of physical review, the family fun they generate is timeless.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email