Ben Goldstein had a rude awakening last year when his budget for part-time summer labor at the Gypsum Recreation Center was slashed by nearly 30 percent. Instead of the approximately $55,000 he was expecting for the busiest time of the year, he had to make do with approximately $38,000.
“It was a pretty dramatic change,” says Goldstein, aquatics coordinator of the Gypsum, Colo., recreation district.
To reduce the need for part-time help at the indoor facility — which features traditional as well as leisure pools, plus a lazy river and water slides — Goldstein had to zero in on employee productivity while balancing his own reluctance to reduce hours for his part-time staff. For the outdoor pool, he found that cutting just one part-time summer position from the daily schedule did a lot to improve the bottom line.
“I hate taking away hours, and I really didn’t end up taking away anyone’s hours this past year,” he says. “Everyone was still content with the hours that they were getting. But it saves me a whole lot of money by cutting down on one body every single day of the summer.”
Goldstein is not alone in facing tough budget decisions. Severe state shortfalls are forcing managers of public aquatics facilities across the nation to take a harder look at their bottom lines. The bad news is that states will be grappling with shortfalls for the foreseeable future: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates an $89 billion shortfall for states in 2009, which is projected to increase to $145 billion in 2010 and $180 billion in 2011.
The immediate impact on public aquatics facilities is still unknown. Because most municipalities begin the new fiscal year in June or July and many operate on budgets that are set a year or two in advance, it could take months or even years before aquatics facilities feel the direct effects of budget shortfalls on their funding. Unlike the private side, which feels the pinch immediately, public facilities may have time to prepare.
“There’s a little bit of reaction time that’s afforded to folks in the public sector, which gives them the opportunity to plan a little bit more accordingly,” says Scott Hester, studio director and principal at designing firm Counsilman/Hunsaker & Associates in St. Louis.
Still, statewide belt-tightening likely will put the onus on municipal aquatics facilities — and leisure pools in particular — to increase revenues. In a recent Aquatics International reader survey, 33.4 percent of respondents reported that they operate at annual losses, while 16.1 percent say they are required to break even.
Unlike their counterparts in the private sector, public facilities are not typically developed as revenue sources. But municipal leisure pools, which are more expensive to run than traditional competitive pools, have more pressure to break even. There’s also the perception factor: The public sector tends to view competitive or therapy pools as a necessity, but not leisure pools.
When it comes to “the requirement for subsidy on a leisure pool, the mentality is much different than what it would be on a competitive pool, a therapy pool or an instructional-type pool,” Hester says. “It’s almost like, ‘Oh, we have a competitive pool, and we have to subsidize it every year, but, boy, that leisure pool, it’s got to at least pay for its expenses.’”
It’s not all bad news, though. Leisure pools provide a fairly inexpensive recreational option for families, and these amenities will likely be in more demand during the recession.
Though waterpark features are more expensive to run and maintain than traditional pool facilities, the draw they provide can make up for the cost, says Buster Adams, CPRP, AFO, athletic and aquatic superintendent of the Bellaire (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department. In its first year, Adams saw the daily returns skyrocket from hundreds of dollars each day to thousands. “The numbers are just astronomical,” he says.
Waterpark features also help public facilities differentiate themselves from the competition. “I find if you bring kids up to the water, they’re not looking at just the pool,” says Ann Blizzard, recreation supervisor of aquatics for Troy, Mich. “They’re looking at the slides and spray features and all the fun stuff that they can do. For our area, at least, that’s something that makes us competitive.”
As more families forgo expensive vacations for more affordable options close to home, they will rely even more heavily on public aquatics facilities for quality recreation and programming. By budgeting wisely, these facilities will continue to meet the needs of the community, despite shrinking funds.
Some facilities are well on their way. One example is Splash! La Mirada Aquatics Center in California. It recovered 77 percent of its costs during the first year of operation. The 18-acre facility, which opened in 2007, features a waterpark with three water slides, a lazy river and spray areas.
“Our goal is not to make a profit; our goal is to provide a service to the community,” says Lori Thompson, acting community services director for the city of La Mirada. “But we do have to be financially responsible to our community.”
To make ends meet, facilities such as Splash! are continuing to look for ways to boost revenue and cut costs. With a little creativity and a lot of practicality, public leisure pools can meet these challenges head on without sacrificing the quality their communities expect.
“The recreation opportunities we provide at our local community and aquatics centers are going to be even more important during these tough economic times, to help support our community and give [it] worthwhile services,” Thompson says.
Because frugality is a way of life for most public aquatics facilities, cutbacks can be painful. To make ends meet without scrimping on essentials, most facilities have made increasing revenues a top priority. Here are a few suggestions to help offset expenses:
Maintain reasonable prices. Affordable fees mean more traffic to the pool, which translates to higher income for the facility. To encourage regular attendance, the Troy Family Aquatics Center offers a range of pricing options, including daily passes, seasonal passes, and punch cards that are good for up to eight visits. Residents are charged a lower fee than non-residents, and there are also special rates for children and for tickets purchased after 5 p.m.
Swim lessons also are an excellent source of revenue, so it is important to offer competitive pricing. For example, the Gypsum Recreation Center charges $35 per session, while a facility 30 miles away charges $100 per session. “Whatever I can do to keep my cost down for my patrons, then they’re going to keep coming,” Goldstein says.
Offer promotions. Coupons, freebies and specials help bring more people into the facility. For example, birthday-party packages at the TFAC include free invitations and an inexpensive goody bag with a buy-one-get-one-free coupon. “You’re giving something away by giving out the coupon, but you’re also getting them to bring somebody back,” Blizzard says. The center runs coupons and special promotions, such as an early-bird rate on passes, in the local paper, too.
Use a subcontractor for concessions. While offering food and beverages is a great way to generate income, the associated costs often eat into the profits. To get around this problem, the new Bellaire (Texas) Town Square Family Aquatic Center rents space to a concessions vendor that sets up a trailer on site during the summer. “We eliminated all costs as far as having to buy supplies and pay staff,” Adams says. “Not only are we saving money, but we also charge them rent and get a percentage of their take.”
Find event sponsors. Corporate sponsors can be essential to getting a quality program or event off the ground. At Gypsum, Goldstein has even worked with sponsors to offer scholarships to members of the swim team. The key is matching the right sponsor to the right event, which does take some legwork. To help save time, the city of Troy has developed a sponsorship information packet. Blizzard’s team mails the packet to potential sponsors, then follows up by phone.
“It’s not an easy thing to do because of the initial time that it takes,” she says. “But for things that we really want to run, and for the bottom line, it’s worth it.”
Host local teams. Offering a facility as home base for school teams can provide a steady revenue source. Two high schools in the Bellaire area don’t have on-site pools, so their swim and dive teams work out at the Bellaire Town Square Family Aquatic Center. “You’re talking about a considerable amount of income,” Adams says.
Target specific groups. Focusing marketing efforts on certain population segments, such as seniors, is an effective and inexpensive way to build existing programs. This year, Goldstein plans to target preschools to encourage students to sign up for swim lessons. “We’re catering to one specific group instead of just trying to advertise to everyone in the public,” he says.
Put on year-round programming. Let the community know that water activities do not have to be seasonal. Bellaire offers scuba classes, master swim classes, and water-exercise programs, such as aerobics, to keep users coming back throughout the year. The water-exercise programs have been particularly popular with fitness enthusiasts. “It’s easier on the joints and the muscles to do it in the warm water,” Adams says.
Get creative. Don’t be afraid to try fun or silly activities, such as inner-tube water polo. Events such as a dog-swim day draw many first-time visitors and can be very successful. “We had something like 80 dogs for our first year,” Goldstein says. Such events also can have a sponsorship tie-in to help defray costs and increase attendance.
Salaries are the No. 1 expense for aquatics facilities. In La Mirada, for example, 45 percent of the $2 million aquatics budget goes to part-time salaries. Scrimping on staff is not an easy option for leisure pools, especially when it comes to safety considerations. But there are ways to use the labor force more efficiently:
Don’t overstaff. Have just enough personnel on duty at a time. In some cases, full-time salaried employees also take a turn in the pool. Besides his duties as aquatics coordinator, Goldstein spends at least 20 hours teaching swim lessons, coaching the swim team and lifeguarding. “I get stretched a little thin,” he says. “But it really cuts down on our part-time employees.”
Consider multiuse programming. One lifeguard can often oversee simultaneous programs, such as lap swimming and swim lessons. “One guard is able to safely cover those things, which helps us to make efficient use of staff,” Thompson says.
Be strategic with hours. Pay attention to user patterns to determine your busy and slow times, then staff accordingly. “We have morning swims where we open up at 5 a.m. and stay open till about midday, and then we close up shop and come back in the early evening,” Adams says.
Maximize staff time. After a change of duty in the tower, relieved lifeguards can do maintenance or teach a class until their next stint in the tower. “While they’re down off the tower, they’re making efficient use of their time,” Thompson says.
Be candid. If the only option is to cut hours or positions, explain that the layoffs are an unfortunate, but necessary step, to keep the facility running. “It’s not just making the decisions; it’s how you present them,” Blizzard says.
Utilities are the second largest expense for aquatics facilities, but investing in energy-efficient equipment and strategies can mean significant savings overall. Here are a few ways to save:
Turn out the lights. Use natural light, where possible. “We’ve got so many windows that face south and west that a lot of the day I don’t have to turn on any lights at all,” Goldstein says. Where you have lighting fixtures, consider turning on only half the bulbs in the fixtures at a time. When it is time to replace the light bulbs, consider energy-efficient models. Replacing underwater pool lights with LEDs also can help the bottom line.
Turn down the heat. High-efficiency pool heaters can make a significant dent in the gas bill for a facility, and solar options may even be surprisingly affordable. If the money isn’t there for this type of upgrade, a pool cover can go a long way toward keeping down costs. “The payback time on pool covers, depending on the size of the pool, can be as little as 12 to 18 months,” Thompson says.
Reduce chemical expenses. When the cost of bleach became too prohibitive, Goldstein moved to calcium hypochlorite. “It saved a quarter of the cost in one year,” he notes. In the future, he hopes to invest in a chlorine-generation system so that chlorine purchases can be eliminated altogether.
Set energy policies. Make sure everyone knows to keep doors closed, turn off lights and motors not in use, and use air-conditioning and heating effectively. Consider posting the utility bill each month so employees can see where they can make a difference. “We let our staff and lifeguards know what our utility bills are and what they can do to help watch those costs,” Thompson says.