City of Spokane Aquatics
Spokane, Wash.
Category: Community Outreach

In Washington State, the City of Spokane offers residents access to six aquatics centers. In recent years, some pools were experiencing low attendance, and their target audience included many families who could not afford admission fees.

To allow all neighborhoods access to safe swimming while boosting attendance, Spokane Parks and Recreation’s Aquatics Division began offering a free swim program in 2018.

“We wanted to provide everyone the opportunity to enjoy a family-friendly activity that is fun, promotes water safety and leads to a healthier community,” says Josh Oakes, recreation supervisor.

Free for all

Parent-tot, lap, and open swim times are now free of charge. Although rates still apply for lessons, swim team, fitness programs and pool rentals, free swim clinics were introduced through a partnership with the Spokane Parks Foundation. “We realized more people would be coming to the pools with limited or no swim skills,” Oaks explains.

The Saturday clinics teach safety in and around the water while helping participants develop and improve swimming skills. Close to 300 people attended clinics last year.

The department also launched the SplashPass, an electronic membership and free swimming pass that works similar to a library card. It allows the department to engage with pool users, send notifications about pool closures, track attendance and ensure users agree to and follow pool rules.

Since the program went into effect, open-swim attendance has risen 61%. Pools with historically low attendance saw a 120% increase. It was not uncommon for aquatics centers to reach maximum capacity during a hot afternoon. “We heard from residents who came multiple times a week with their families,” Oakes says. “They said they wouldn’t have been able to afford that without Free Swim.”

No tax increase

These changes did require some sacrifice.

Spokane Aquatics has charged for pool entry since 1981. In 2017, open-swim daily admission prices were $2 per child and $4 per adult. With operating costs of the six aquatics centers totaling more than $1 million, and revenue from open swim bringing in less than $200,000, the Spokane Park Board and city staff decided the lost revenue was a small price to pay.

The revenue gap was initially covered by previous annual reserve excess. In 2019, the program’s cost became part of the annual Parks and Rec budget. No services were negatively impacted by the budget adjustment.

“The free swim program is possible thanks to the Park Board and our community for embracing and supporting it,” Oakes says. “We know how important it is to use taxpayer funds wisely, and the positive feedback and high attendance show this was good use of Parks and Rec funds.”