Answers To Tough Questions

By Adam Blackmore

Why does the swim team get the entire pool? Why is the synchronized swimming class always held first thing in the morning? Why do we need so many lanes for lap swimming when we have a world-class water polo team? If you operate a competition-style pool with multiple lap lanes and diverse programming capabilities, these types of questions probably sound familiar. The challenges associated with this dilemma can be daunting, particularly if a community places a high value on the many benefits of aquatic facilities.

The city of Henderson, Nev., has three year-round “competition” pools, ranging from 10 to 20 lanes each, with depths from 4 to 13 feet. Two of these pools have diving boards, one is Olympic-sized and certified for competition by USA Swimming with a bulkhead that allows for 25-meter or 50-meter options, and one is more of a novice facility with 10 lanes. The city—and by association the parks and recreation department—is fortunate to have a passionate aquatic user base composed of lap swimmers, water-walkers, high-impact aerobics classes, competitive swim and water polo teams, diving clubs, and scuba-diving instruction. These programs, in addition to city programs—learn-to-swim, novice swimming, synchronized swimming, and special events--are all competing for the same space. Thus, the obvious quandary is, “Who gets what, when, and where?” Until recently, the answers were left to some semblance of chance and variable reasoning. Sometimes the lanes were allocated to the “hot, new program,” sometimes to the “been swimming here forever program,” and sometimes to the “it just feels right” program. As our community and facility demand continued to grow, it became apparent that this particular approach wasn’t going to be sustainable, and it was doing more harm than good. After some discussion, the management of the city’s aquatic section only had to look as far as its own department to solve the majority of these issues.

Classifying Users
We realized our center wasn’t the only game in town that had high demand for a limited number of facilities. The city’s sports section had been working from, and consistently evaluating and improving, a comprehensive field-allocation policy for years, which formed the ground work for how aquatics could prioritize its lap-lane allocations and programs. The concept itself is fairly simple and divides all participants and programs into one of five user groups. These groups are classified in order of service preference, based upon the city’s Public Works, Parks and Recreation Department policy, and service models, and may vary depending upon the organization. But the lesson to be learned as a first step is to fully encapsulate the facility’s users and programs to determine how their use best benefits the organization.

The five groups we use for reference and classification are the following:

  1. City programs (open swim, water-walking, aerobics, swimming lessons, etc.)
  2. School district programs (high school swimming, diving, special events)
  3. Nonprofit organizations with more than 51 percent of participants residing within city limits
  4. Nonprofit organizations with less than 51 percent of participants residing within city limits
  5. Commercial-use organizations (private clubs/teams, training agencies, rentals).

Bumps In The Road
The first challenge in implementing this system was to determine how the user groups that had established a specific pattern were going to be impacted by the changes, and subsequently how those changes could potentially impact the operations of city pools. Commercial users had been getting the majority of pool space during peak hours because that was a huge program, both in revenue and in the number of participants, plus the group had been established for as long as anyone could remember. Those users were now being asked to significantly reduce their use as a result of the new allocation procedures. City programs with great growth potential had never been put to the test to see if they were ready to expand their level of service and participation. Lastly, nonprofit groups never had to worry about providing their participants’ addresses or nonprofit-status information; contracts were handled on a handshake level. Moving toward a more business and process-minded approach was—and continues to be—a paradigm shift of sorts.

In an attempt to mitigate some of the difficulties in implementing allocation changes, a number of strategies were devised. Commercial groups were allowed a grace period to transition to nonprofit status. The local school district was given substantially more time to submit its lane requests (no schools have competition swimming facilities) to ensure it was able to make reasonable accommodations. Nonprofit groups thus had a better idea of how much space would be available when their requests were made. The manual specifies what is called the allocation cycle or the dates of the year when one operating season transitions to the next. These dates dictate contracts and programs and enable users to nail down exactly when their lane requests are due to the operations team. On that note, it’s important to know the entire concept of “timeframe for requests” was somewhat foreign, because in the past, use had been carried over from previous years or program cycles; programs took what they could get versus having a formal lane-assignment process. Once all of these potential hardships were discussed and planned for, it was time to implement.

Guidelines For Decision Making
Once the manual was approved by the administration, the operations staff met with each instructor, coach, and user group to outline the new procedures and how they were to be evaluated. The overarching theme of the manual is to enable the operations team to do what is in the best interest of the city. These interests can vary from pool to pool, but normally include services provided, financial benefits, program growth, and the list goes on. Thus, the classifications shouldn’t be looked at as a hard-and-fast policy, but more as guidelines for decision making. These allow for flexibility when needed and for reiteration of policy when questioned.

Overall, the creation and implementation of the manual has been a success in a variety of ways. It has created structure for consistency, enabled the section to take a step back to evaluate programming philosophies, and allowed all of the programs to acquire a more comprehensive view of how diverse and far-reaching our program plan truly is. The manual will continue to be evaluated and tweaked as needed. But if there is one thing I would stress as the value added to an operator implementing these strategies, it is that the staff will now have answers to those inevitable questions: Why does the swim team get the entire pool? Why is the synchronized swimming class always held first thing in the morning? Why do you need so many lanes for lap swimming when we have a world-class water polo team?

Adam Blackmore is a Recreation Manager with the City of Henderson Department of Parks & Recreation (Nev.). He serves as the President-Elect for the Nevada Recreation and Park Society and is on the Board of Directors for the Southern Nevada Children’s Drowning Prevention Coalition. He has been in the recreation industry for 10 years, working in both the public and private sectors. Reach him at