Making a splash in local recreation
When the New Year’s commentators look back on 1998 and ask “What was hot,” the answer is likely to be “Everything.” Anyone stepping outdoors between May and September was likely to believe, at least once, that he was standing on the hottest spot on earth. That was good news for waterparks and the local governments that owned them; they suddenly had the coolest attraction in town.
The World Waterpark Association in Lenexa, Kan., estimates that there are more than 1,000 waterparks in the United States, and more than half of them belong to local governments. Interestingly, many of the parks are self-sustaining; a 1996 survey by the association showed that even profitable waterparks were not taking full advantage of their revenue potential.
Nevertheless, locally owned waterparks are performing fine. And communities that have them point to amenities, patron fees and public input as the driving forces behind their success.
Diving in The decision to build a waterpark is often the result of a need to update existing aquatic facilities. For example, in East Brunswick, N.J., the community was prompted to build an aquatic park when membership at a 30-year-old, locally operated lake facility dropped.
“In the early ’90s, membership had dropped off considerably; very few families were joining,” says Tom Williams, manager for the township’s Division of Parks. “It was costing the town a lot of money to maintain (the site).”
“We began looking at the concept of a waterpark and adding additional amenities, and also at complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act,” he explains. Officials hoped that a new facility would increase membership and be self-sustaining.
Woodridge, Ill., faced a similar situation, when, in 1995, the community planned to renovate an existing pool. “With older pools, you were lucky to break even, or you were losing money,” says Don Ritter, recreation superintendent for the Woodridge Park District. “One pool was starting to fall apart, and we started getting some pretty expensive figures (for renovation costs).
“At the same time, we realized that the trend was waterparks, and we decided to do a comparison,” he says. “We visited a lot of parks, and we asked a lot of questions. The waterparks all seemed to be either breaking even or making a profit.”
In terms of feasibility, land availability and budget are key considerations. Moreover, once the decision to build is made, communities must choose the amenities to include in their parks. The possibilities are as numerous as the parks themselves, and, as the following parks demonstrate, more amenities do not necessarily translate into more revenue. * Crystal Springs, East Brunswick The 10-acre facility is owned and operated by the township. It serves 45,000 residents and is available to non-residents as well.
Opened in 1994, it operates weekends from Memorial Day until early June, when public schools are closed. It then operates seven days a week through Labor Day.
Attendance averages between 1,500 and 1,800 people per day (the peak being 2,700), and the park boasts average annual revenues of $600,000. It was funded with a $2 million bond issue, which is being paid back over 20 years with profits from the park.
The facility opened with two water slides; a 780-foot “lazy river” (a shallow pool in which bathers on innertubes are pushed through the water by a gentle current); an eight-lane lap pool; a zero-depth area (where bathers enter the water at zero depth, as at a beach, and the water level gradually rises); two small body slides; a beach and a sand play area forchildren. This year, the township added a 4,000 square foot “activities pool” (for water volleyball, for example). It ranges in depth from 3 to 5 feet and includes in-water benches.
* Cypress Cove Family Aquatic Center, Woodridge Opened in 1997, it is owned and operated by the Woodridge Park District. The 8-acre park serves a resident population of nearly 30,000, as well as non-residents.
It operates seven days a week from May 30 through Aug. 31 and has the capacity to handle up to 1,500 visitors at a time. Last year’s revenues totaled $488,000.
Funded with a 20-year, $6 million bond issue (to be paid back with park profits), the center includes a 600-foot lazy river; a zero-depth area; four slides; a sand play area and step fountain for children; a 3-acre sun-turf area; a six-lane competitive pool; and an entertainment stage.
* Waves of Fun Waterpark, Putnam County, W.Va. The $1.6 million facility is owned and operated by the county, and it was funded with local, state and federal contributions. Open Memorial Day through Labor Day, it serves more than 50,000 residents, as well as non-residents.
Built in 1981, the waterpark opened with a wave pool. The county added three water slides in 1989, and it opened an 18-hole mini-golf attraction last year. The park has a 1,200-person capacity and annual revenues of more than $400,000.
Look before you leap With the endless possibilities for mixing amenities, how does a local government choose what to include in a waterpark? Existing waterparks and the public are the best resources, Ritter says. “We visited other waterparks and found out for ourselves what was popular in other communities,” he says. “We put together a list [of the most popular attractions], and, before we finalized it, we formed an advisory committee of six or seven people.
“We had three or four meetings with them,” Ritter explains. “They would come in, review our list and give us their ideas. And they actually changed some things.”
On the recommendation of the citizens group, the Park District added a competitive pool, as well as a diving board, scaling back from the original plan to accommodate the committee’s ideas. “We felt that diving boards were not very popular, and [the committee] proved us wrong,” Ritter says. “It’s turned out, the diving board line is always very long.”
Some attractions are proving popular wherever they appear. For example, Woodridge and East Brunswick officials recommend a lazy river. Ritter notes that slides also are popular, but he saves his highest praise for zero-depth amenities. “My number one recommendation would be: If you can put in a zero-depth pool, do it,” he says. “Granted, it’s geared mostly for little kids, but moms and dads love it. They can sit in very shallow water with their kids and not have to worry too much.”
Additionally, waterpark managers advise other local governments to consider non-aquatic amenities as they design their waterparks. “We learned recently not to include just water activities,” Williams says. “Beach volleyball and basketball are very popular. If you can get a couple of courts in (Crystal Springs added both this year), you’ll see people using them.” Similarly, Waves of Fun is adding a horseshoe pit and shuffleboard to its facility.
Excited by all the “fun stuff” in a waterpark, local governments can overlook more mundane, yet essential, additions to their facilities. “When they do build a park, they have to assure themselves that they’re going to have ample parking space,” says Leigh Gerhart, supervisor for East Brunswick’s Division of Parks. “A lot of people don’t take that into consideration, and they end up having [major problems] with their parking.”
Shade can be easily ignored, too — until the park opens. “If I had to pick one thing that’s a weakness at [Cypress Cove], it would be lack of shade,” Ritter says. “We have a lot of landscaping, but the trees and shrubbery are immature, and they’re going to take five years to really grow and supply shade.” The park opened with three “Funbrellas” (umbrellas measuring 20 feet in diameter), and the Park District is considering adding more. In the meantime, it has installed two shaded trellises on the site.
Riding the current-cy In addition to choosing the amenities that will make up their waterparks, local governments also must identify their revenue needs and potential sources. In addition to collecting admissions fees (see the table on page 32), parks typically generate revenue through concessions, merchandise, games and arcades, tube rentals, locker rentals, program registration fees (such as for swim team, swimming lessons or aquatic exercise) and private parties.
Crystal Springs, Cypress Cove and Waves of Fun all are self-sustaining — and profitable — with the bulk of their revenues coming from admissions fees. All of the parks sell food and beverages, but none charges for locker rental. Waves of Fun does charge for tube rental and mini-golf.
Revenue projections can be tough to make, Ritter says. “We didn’t know what to expect as far as how many people would be paying the daily fee and how many people would actually buy a season pass,” he explains. “And that makes a huge difference in your revenue.”
Last year, when Cypress Cove opened, many visitors paid daily fees “to check the park out,” Ritter says. This year, “a lot of those people bought season passes. We think our season pass totals are going to be higher than they were last year, and probably our daily admissions fees will be down just a little.”
At Crystal Springs, officials were surprised by the opposite phenomenon. “I don’t think we thought the dailies would be as large a component of our membership as they are today,” Williams says. “Dailies represent 40 percent of the revenue that we bring in.”
Revenue can be affected by anything from the weather to the public’s affinity for a given amenity. For example, merchandising at Cypress Cove has been a problem. “We’ve got this merchandise room, the General Store, where we sell water bottles, goggles, suntan lotion, hats, t-shirts, keyholders, etc.,” Ritter says. “This is the second summer in a row that it has really flopped.”
Experiencing a similar situation at Crystal Springs, Gerhart shifted his merchandise mix from a full range of logo items (e.g., towels and shirts) to a more limited selection of products. “We realized that only the people that visit from outside East Brunswick or from a distance will buy something that carries a logo of Crystal Springs. They visit once, they may hit the gift shop, but, if they come back, they’re not going to do it again,” he notes.
“Now, we provide a lot of suncare products, t-shirts, hats and aqualocks, and we do a big sell on goggles,” Gerhart says. “I buy a lot of toys for the kids — squirt guns, buckets, shovels, beanie animals. I try to follow the trends, and, if they’re affordable, I bring them into the gift shop.”
The financial ebb and flow Although waterpark revenues can be pretty impressive, operating expenses can be eye-opening as well. The list of expenditures is lengthy, ranging from seasonal employee payrolls and maintenance to utilities and debt service.
Last year, Cypress Cove spent $418,000 on operations, including $222,000 that it spent solely on staff. The park has 95 staff members, including managers, lifeguards, deck guards, concession staff, locker room attendants, admissions and guest services staff, and maintenance staff.
In addition to the staff costs, the park paid $86,000 for general expenses such as lifeguard training and uniforms, printing costs for marketing, a security alarm service and utilities. Additional items such as concession supplies, equipment, janitorial supplies, office supplies and pool chemicals cost $70,000.
Costs for other parks are equally as high. For example, Waves of Fun, with 75 employees, has an annual operating budget of $380,000. And Crystal Springs, which employs 140, estimates that its 1998 operating expenses will total $613,000.
Equipment and grounds maintenance, while expensive, fall far behind staff costs. For example, Linda Bush, director of Putnam County’s Parks and Recreation Commission, estimates that maintenance accounts for 10 to 15 percent of Waves of Fun’s operating budget.
Furthermore, many maintenance costs can be and should be prevented by frequent monitoring of the water, she says. “You need to hire a good person who is very knowledgeable about water quality. Every hour, we check the water and record everything,” she explains. “If you have someone who is not in control of the water, you’re going to have problems that could be unbelievable — problems in your filtration system, with your equipment and with corrosion.”
“You need to have a built-in maintenance program with the funds available year-round,” Bush adds. “When you operate on a seasonal basis, the winter months are when you start painting and trying to get everything ready for the next season.”
Finally, she advises local governments to keep equipment such as pumps on hand. “If a pump goes down, some of them are hard to get, and it may take you a while to replace it,” she explains. “We buy and keep them in case we do have a breakdown.”
Will it float? Although the forecast looks favorable for the future of locally owned waterparks, Williams urges cities and counties to look for experience at even the earliest stages of a project. “I think you need to get a professional feasibility study. Don’t try to do it yourself,” he advises. “And hire a design engineering firm that has a successful track record in building these facilities. It’s not something you want to give to [just any] engineering or design firm.”
Like Ritter, Williams suggests that the public be included in the planning process. Over a three-year period, East Brunswick’s Division of Parks held public forums including the township council and citizens. “We went over in great detail what we were doing and what the concept was, and we solicited a lot of information from the residents,” he says.
“Basically, it was supported all the way through,” Williams adds. “Some of the negative feedback was from people that maybe didn’t have kids or didn’t want to be involved in swimming, and they were concerned that their tax dollars were going to pay for something that they weren’t going to use. Our response was, ‘There’s not one penny of it coming from your general taxes.'”
Fees were an early concern for residents of Putnam County. “We were concerned that the public just would not understand the difference in the prices that you would pay for a conventional pool and [a waterpark],” Bush says. “An open letter was sent out with our fee schedule, explaining that the recreation authorities wanted 40 percent of the recreation system to be revenue-producing.”
Change can bring out the traditionalists, too, says Gerhart. “A [waterpark] is moving away from what everyone is used to. It is different from the old pool facility or country club mentality, and the public has to somehow be re-educated to understand that.”
There appear to be few complaints. “[Waterparks are] another form of recreation that a lot of people, ranging from toddlers to senior citizens, can enjoy,” Williams says. “[At Crystal Springs], we see kids and adults having a blast. People are just enjoying themselves.
“That’s a big plus,” he notes. “It’s a nice recreational facility for any town or county to have.”
State and local park and recreation bond issues reached record values last year, totaling more than $1.35 billion, reports Securities Data Corp., New York. Ten years ago, similar issues totaled $230 million.
According to GreenSense, a publication of San Francisco-based The Trust for Public Land, the bonds’ popularity can be attributed to a strong economy and low interest rates. Additionally, there is growing public perception that parks, recreation and open space investments are linked directly to community quality, environmental improvement, economic development and efficient growth.
Surveys sponsored by The Trust indicate that more than 70 percent of voters approved more than 150 park ballot measures in November 1996. The approval rate was even higher in November 1997, although for a smaller number of measures.
Furthermore, at the local level, bond measure approval appears to be spilling beyond the parks and recreation niche. The Bond Market Association, New York, reports that municipal bond issues rose to $75.9 billion in the first quarter of 1998, up 68.3 percent from $45.1 billion one year ago.
Since its 1985 inception, Washington, D.C.-based Rails-to-Trails Conservancy has dedicated its human, financial and educational resources to creating a nationwide network of public trails out of former rail lines and connecting corridors. Each year, more than 100 million Americans visit “rail trails” for cycling, walking, running, skating, skiing, horseback riding and other activities.
As of May 1998, local, state, federal and private sources had funded the completion of 990 such trails, spanning more than 10,000 miles. The longest, the Katy Trail, stretches nearly 200 miles along the Missouri River. With 2 million visitors annually, Virginia’s Washington & Old Dominion Trail is the most heavily used.
This summer, the conservancy is highlighting 10 rail trails for their historic significance. Working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Washington, D.C., the organization has chosen: * Bizz Johnson Trail, California. It covers 25 miles, from Susanville to Westwood, including 11 bridges and two tunnels in the heart of what was once a boom region for logging. * Farmington Canal Linear State Park Trail, Connecticut. It spans 6 miles, from Cheshire to Hamden, along the banks of the 18th century canal. * Old Savannah-Tybee Railroad Historic & Scenic Multipurpose Trail, Georgia. The 6.5-mile trail moves in and around Savannah, which was founded in 1733 when Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe arrived to stake out the last of England’s 13 colonies. * Heritage Trail, Iowa. It begins in Dubuque, the state’s oldest city, and ends in Dyonsville, 26 miles away. Fossils and Indian burial mounds hint at the area’s ancient history. * Minuteman Bikeway, Massachusetts. Spanning from Cambridge to Bedford, the 11-mile trail includes two boxed pony truss bridges and takes visitors to Lexington Common, the site of the first major fight of the American Revolution. * Katy Trail State Park, Missouri. It stretches 185 miles, from St. Charles to Sedalia. Lewis and Clark passed by St. Charles, which was a French Canadian fur trading center in the late 1700s and today houses a museum of the explorers’ artifacts. Nearby Marthasville was the original burial site of Daniel Boone; and Hermann, founded in 1836 as a German settlement, is home of the third-largest U.S. winery. * Santa Fe Rail-Trail, New Mexico. The 18-mile trail, from Lamy to Santa Fe (the nation’s oldest capital city), follows the path of “Billy the Kid” Rudabaugh. * Erie Canal Trail, New York. Spanning 90 miles, from Amsterdam to Schoharie State Historic Site, the trail snakes along the banks of the original waterway, featuring original dam works, locks and support facilities (blacksmiths’ shops, stables, etc.). * New River Trail State Park, Virginia. The region’s mines were the chief source of lead for rifle pellets used in the Civil War. The 57-mile trail features the Shot Tower, from which molten lead was poured to be cooled in the river. * Elroy-Sparta Rail-Trail, Wisconsin. The 31-year-old rail trail is the nation’s oldest. It spans 33 miles, from Elroy to Sparta.
According to the conservancy, 1,221 rail trails are in the works throughout the United States. For additional information on existing or planned trails, contact Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, 1100 17th St. NW, 10th floor, Washington DC 20036; www.railtrails.org.