Aquatic centers operate with distinctive style
When the Blanchette and McNair Parks’ Family Aquatic Center opened in 1992, St. Charles, Mo., it became one of the few municipalities of its size in the country to own and operate two leisure aquatic centers. Adding to that distinction is the park’s operating philosophy of affordability and revenue generation, while offering scholarships to those who cannot afford the park rates. A unique departmental program, called Profit Sharing, allows management to operate given areas effectively and efficiently, without risk to safety, while keeping 50 percent of the profits to enhance the facilities or to run new programs. The 50 percent of revenue/expense excess that does not go to the divisions is targeted for departmental capital funding and cash flow balances.
The centers deviate from the typical “square pond” that many municipalities continue to operate, and they are designed to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act while serving all ages from senior citizens to small children.
“Each community is unique in its own way, but it can incorporate many, if not all, of the concepts that have been adopted here in St. Charles,” says Richard Ash, park director. “We’ve borrowed ideas from other folks in both the private and public sector. While many cities have abandoned the neighborhood pool concept in favor of a single profit-center waterpark, we’ve married both.”
Both centers feature zero-depth entry into the main activity and children’s pool(s) areas. The activity areas at both facilities feature otter slides, waterslides, lily pad walks and fountains. Both children’s pool areas boast a participatory water playground where children experiment with water sprays, waterfalls and turning valves to change water elements. McNair also has lap swimming, and Blanchette has diving and a 25-yard competition pool.
Most center users come fromk St. Charles, with others from the county and St. Louis area. Youths ages nine to 14 are the primary users, although parents and grandparents with small children are a close second. First-year attendance increased 380 percent over that in 1991, and the numbers have continued to grow.
These results have been a long time coming. In 1984, an active park user approached the park board with concerns about the city’s aquatic needs, precipitating discussion about the aging Blanchette Pool (at that time 47 years old) and other future aquatic needs.
A Citizen’s Advisory Committee was formed to explore options, and staff and park board members attended Aquatic and World Water Park conferences and took numerous facility tours across the country in order to generate ideas and observe how people really used various water features. Additionally, surveys were mailed to pool patrons and citizens for input and suggestions.
In 1988, an engineering assessment determined the Blanchette Pool would not safely function after 1991 due to structural damage. But without Blanchette, the city’s swimming population would have only 3,300 square feet of public water. In April 1991, a $4.9 million general obligation bond issue calling for a $.09 property tax increase was proposed to voters, $3.1 million of which was to fund the building of two new family aquatic centers. Upon voter approval, the department took on the challenge of providing facilities without losing a swimming season. Markey and Associates, Atlanta, was hired to provide formal design and engineering services for the project.
The grand opening for the $1.8 million Blanchette Aquatic Center was held May 30, and on July 15, the $1.3 million McNair Aquatic Center opened its doors. Since the 1980s, the facilities had been subsidized by other park operations. Receipts in 1992 were $328,010 with expenses totaling $341,840, creating what appeared to be a $13,830 deficit. The “loss” was attributed to two things: no increase in fees for the initial year and McNair’s late opening, which limited neighborhood season pass sales.
However, one nontypical fiscal management tool — “sinking funds” — was used, contributing to the perception of loss. The sinking funds provide for timely equipment replacement, and $54,750 is charged annually as an operational expense and set aside into an interest accruing escrow. When equipment reaches its useful life and needs to be replaced, there are monies available to do so.
The rates were raised in 1993, although they were still below the area’s typical waterpark rates. Still, increases did not inhibit attendance and resulted in net profits of $104,420 in 1993 and $93,500 in 1994.