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In the deep end: Area facilities awash in fun, not funds

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What came as a shock in Greenwood isn’t a surprise elsewhere in Indiana — aquatic centers do well if they earn enough to pay their bills, but few, if any, make a profit, officials said.

Greenwood officials have said for years that, if the city built an aquatic center that also had water slides and a lazy river, the city could recover its costs and possibly earn a profit from the pool park.

But pool engineering firm Counsilman-Hunsaker studied Greenwood’s designs — which include a lap pool, water slides, a leisure pool and a lazy river for inner tubing — and reported the opposite. The company predicted Greenwood would spend, at minimum, $200,000 more per year to operate the pool park than it would earn from admissions or renting the facility for parties.

Greenwood plans to build a new aquatic center in time to open it in May 2015.

Members of a pool committee that the Greenwood City Council organized visited 14 aquatic centers in Indiana in 2012 and recommended the city build an aquatic center in Freedom Park off Averitt Road.

An aquatic center with the right features, such as a lazy river, would have the best chance of paying its own expenses, pool committee chairman Thom Hord told the city council, according to meeting minutes.

The pool committee, at its meetings, referred often to Plainfield’s Splash Island as an aquatic center that covers its own costs and earns enough money to pay for other projects. The town told the pool committee that Splash Island made enough money to pay its expenses, city council and pool committee member David Hopper said.

The outdoor Plainfield aquatic center doesn’t by itself cover its expenses with fee sales and isn’t comparable to Greenwood’s plans because the memberships include year-round access to an indoor water park and community center, town Clerk-Treasurer Wes Bennett said.

“We’re not profitable. It was never intended to make a profit,” he said.

Plainfield doesn’t track Splash Island’s income and expenses separately from the rest of the parks department budget, which gets funding from property taxes and a food and beverage tax. A city or town’s aquatic center that does earn money is charging too much for admission, Bennett said.

“Philosophically, I hope they don’t make a profit,” Bennett said.

Franklin’s aquatic center does earn money beyond its expenses; but the city is operating a 35-year-old pool, and 2013 renovations were paid for with a $1.2 million bond being repaid with property taxes. The pool park is compact, with a pool, splash pad and water slide that are close together and don’t require many lifeguards, parks and recreation director Chip Orner said.

A lazy river, such as the one Greenwood plans to build, requires many more than Franklin’s 13 lifeguards per day, he said. Staffing is the most expensive part of the Franklin pool park’s budget, he said. Also, the parks department pays for marketing the aquatic center, so advertising doesn’t impact the pool’s budget, he said.

Edinburgh’s pool park doesn’t cover its costs with entry fees, let alone earn a profit. In 2013, aquatic center attendees paid for about 11 percent of the costs of operating the pool, which has water slides, a play area with pipes that shoot water and a separate smaller pool for little children.

Even earning enough money from pool passes and memberships to cover costs would require raising rates so high that residents might not use it, defeating the purpose, parks and recreation superintendent Daniel Teter said. The town has never expected it to be a moneymaker, he said.

“It was just going to be seen as an amenity,” he said.

Hopper said he isn’t sure the loss for Greenwood’s aquatic center that Counsilman-Hunsaker predicted was accurate. For example, he said he thinks the city could charge high enough rates on memberships and day passes to make the aquatic center break even. The rates suggested in the study are $6.50 per day for an adult resident and $5.50 for a child. Season passes for Greenwood residents would cost $65 for an individual and $185 for a family.

“I don’t necessarily know that the rates were necessarily what we should charge,” Hopper said.

Daniel Paul, a local attorney who served on the Greenwood pool committee, also questioned the Counsilman-Hunsaker report. The report listed salaries for employees working all year to manage the aquatic center, but Greenwood already has parks department employees who could do some of the work, he said. Also, the aquatic center would be open for only about four months during the summer and wouldn’t require a full staff year-round, he said.

The firm was paid no more than $10,500 to develop the operational business plan for the aquatic center at Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers’ request.

Pool committee member Karl Kreck went to all 14 pool parks, talked with pool managers and town managers, and concluded that an aquatic center could come close to breaking even, but they’re not profitable. A lazy river, though, would be too expensive due to the number of lifeguards it would require, he said.

Not every aquatic center has to have operating expenses paid for with tax dollars. For example, Carmel’s aquatic center doesn’t get money from taxes for operations anymore, and the pool and community complex together pay for the overall operating costs, parks director Mark Westermeier said.

But memberships allow entry to both the indoor exercise area and the water park, so the city can’t know which visitors are paying for exclusive use of the aquatic center, he said.

Private businesses also pay to advertise on signs at the pool park, and the money the companies pay buys memberships for residents who can’t afford them, Westermeier said. Plus, Clay Township paid $55 million to build the community center and water park. The township also initially gave about $2.3 million to help pay for operating expenses during the first few years, he said.

Now, fees pay for operations; but those come from fitness center and aquatic center memberships, fees to take gardening or yoga classes and other programs, such as swimming or surfing machine lessons.

Carmel invests about 5 percent of the community and aquatic center budget on advertising, which cost more than $200,000 last year. The city spends even more to add new features, such as a surfing simulator, to the water park regularly. An aquatic center has to add new features every three years to keep people coming back, which is why the city plans to add a climbing wall to the deep end of the pool this year.

“We’re always looking at cost recovery,” Westermeier said.

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