When Amy Fortenberry closed down the ailing Jack Carter Pool in Plano, Texas, because it was losing 200,000 gallons of water a day, she had no idea the can of worms she was about to open. “The neighborhood came unglued,” says Fortenberry, Plano’s parks and recreation director. A public meeting at the pool itself didn’t help matters. Fortenberry and her staff were greeted with the modern equivalent of torches and pitchforks: Angry residents waving “save our pool” signs. Rumors and misinformation were running through the crowd faster than the pool was losing water. “It was the worst public meeting I’ve ever been involved in,” she recalls.
But this sad tale has a surprisingly happy ending. In the weeks after the meeting, a neighborhood committee formed that helped correct the misinformation, and educate residents about what a new pool could bring to the area. And now, a new leisure-style pool will open in 2016 that promises to bring in the coveted teen crowd with zip lines, climbing walls and even a FlowRider.
To many operators, this story may sound like a fairytale. Today’s post-recession reality is anything but. Many facilities have suffered for years under deferred maintenance and budget cuts. In cash-strapped towns, experts say aging pools are on a downward spiral that looks something like this: Their old, flat-water design no longer draws crowds; that in turn reduces funding; and the dwindling income increases the already hefty subsidy required to keep them open. The coup de grace happens when a major maintenance issue, such as the water leak Plano experienced, arises. Rather than fix the pool, politicians see an easy way to reduce costs. And though they may love their pool, tax-averse citizens can’t justify the cost to fix, renovate or build new.
“Keeping pools open is a real problem today,” says Scott Hester, President of Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis. “The biggest problem is that under the public sector model, they operate under subsidies. Those subsidies only get bigger with age. So every year, when you’re looking at your budget, the pool has a pretty big target on it.”
But Hester and others say the right combination of outreach, education and planning can reverse that cycle — and make the community fall in love with their pool all over again.
The first step in the process is coming to terms with reality. That means having a frank conversation with the public about the current state of the facility, warts and all. Often the biggest battle is against nostalgia for the old pool itself, says Dave Schwartz, principle at Waters Edge Aquatic Design in Lenexa, Kans.
“You get a lot of, ‘I remember that pool. It was just fine for me. What’s wrong with it now? Why aren’t you guys taking care of it?’” he says. “You can script these responses from town to town. They just think no one’s been taking care of it so why should we give you money for something new?”
To overcome that kind of misinformation, Schwartz recommends starting with city officials. Bringing them to the pool, and showing them the state that it’s in will help them see reality. This also is the time to review the logic and financial feasibility of saving the old pool, especially if the pool suffers from structural issues. “If your house foundation is crumbling, you don’t go in and do new wall paper or paint. You fix the foundation,” Schwartz says.
Once you have politicians on board, it’s time to educate the public. This can be even more of a challenge, especially when you start to talk about the cost to repair, renovate or replace. That’s why it’s best to bring in a consultant to help explain the situation. “The public may know the bottom line number,” Hester says. “But they don’t know why. We can give them the why and what it means.”
Fortenberry says the public may also just need to time to digest the information. “When we found out the pool had to be closed, we all kind of mourned it at the city,” she says. “The public needed time to morn it, too.”
Redefining Community Pool
With misinformation corrected, it’s now time to start engaging citizens in the process of determining what the new or renovated pool will look like. This was the key for Fortenberry’s success, and experts say that’s true across the board.
In Plano’s case, a 21-member committee from nine different neighborhoods helped turn the tide. “They did a great job,” Fortenberry says. “They beat the bushes. They talked to their neighbors. They used social media.” That last point, was key, she says. Neighborhood groups had access to channels such as Facebook pages the city did not, along with neighborhood ambassadors with built in trust.
“The committee cut through the noise to get information out there — and bring information back that helped inform the design,” she says.
That process is not only essential to a successful campaign, experts say, but also helps develop a plan that will be more appealing to a wider audience. In turn, that leads to a more sustainable facility. “The real key is how do we bring aquatics back in so it represents the entire community?” says Dennis Berkshire, president of Aquatic Design Group in Carlsbad, Calif.
Unfortunately, the biggest hurdle to overcome in this process often is aquatics biggest boosters: swim teams and clubs. For example, Berkshire says the pools these groups typically want — the “flatwater rectilinear” variety — only cater to about .5 percent of the swimming population. As such, they typically only recoup about 40 percent to 50 percent of their operating costs. More multi-functional pools will recoup between 70 percent to 100 percent of their costs. “It’s about setting up a pool that isn’t a drain on city coffers,” he says.
Showing It Off
When it comes to designing a pool that caters to every demographic, one size does not fit all. That’s where it becomes vital to really show residents what’s possible with a new or renovated pool — and find out what’s important to them.
"Show" is the operative word in this process, designers say, because many residents may not understand a feature until they see a drawing, or a picture of it. “It’s a lot more complicated, and it takes more time,” Schwartz says. “But I love talking to people and seeing their eyes light up when they go, ‘Oh, that’s what that is!”
Schwartz and others say it’s imperative for operators to choose features that offer that “wow” factor, not just on day one, but for years to come.
In the case of Plano, Fortenberry says it was a delicate balance of marrying nostalgia for the old pool with the new possibilities of today’s aquatics. “That’s where the tide turned. When you get them engaged and find out, ‘What did you love about the old pool?’ she says. “Then we needed them to see what was possible. When they take the photos back to their families, and the kids go, ‘Wow, that’s cool!’ you know you’ve got something.”
Four Alternative Funding Methods to Renovate, Rebuild and Operate Pools
- Alternative financing. Many residents won’t pass new sales taxes or bond measures. But creative communities are turning to tax increment financing to fund major projects, says Dave Schwartz, principle with Waters Edge Aquatic Design in Lenexa, Kans. So-called TIFs, or ubran renewal districts, use future gains in taxes to subsidize current improvements. Schwartz says another method is to use a tax that’s coming to fruition and get the community to authorize continuation of that tax.
- Private money. More communities are turning to foundations and even silicon valley venture capitalists to fund pool improvements, says Dennis Berkshire, president of Aquatic Design Group in Carlsbad, Calif. Berkshire says to look for groups that have an affinity for aquatics or an interest is such programs as learn to swim or drowning prevention.
- Public/Private partnerships. With community budgets still tight, more communities are looking to partner with places such as hospitals and schools to build wellness or recreation centers that include an aquatic component, says Schwartz. Berkshire also knows of one city that’s partnering with a waterpark hotel resort to build and maintain an public aquatic facility, alongside its private waterpark.
- Outsourcing operations. These arrangements and service providers can take many different forms. But one major player, Counsilman-Hunsaker, has joined the list of offerings that could make this alternative more attractive to cash-strapped communities. Third-party operators can offer incentives, buying leverage and staffing expertise a city can’t match, says Scott Hester, President of Counsilman-Hunsaker. “I really believe that outsourcing operations is something you’re going to see more and more in the future,” he says. “It’s not that traditional operators are bad operators, it’s just that their tools are limited.”