The traditional definition of an outdoor public swimming pool used to be a rectangular tank of water (perhaps with a diving well) and a concrete deck, usually surrounded by a chain-link fence. That definition has changed significantly over the years, just as the aquatic recreational and programming needs of the public have evolved to the point where words like "zero depth entry," "interactive water play structures," "competitive swimming" and "accessibility" now are all part of the industry lexicon.
For years, facility operators have attempted to blend new concepts into aquatic centers in an effort to serve a multitude of generations and user groups. Yet despite countless surveys that indicate swimming is one of the all-time favorite recreational activities in the United States, attendance at many older public pools continues to decline - in large part because they are failing to meet the needs of their communities. It is time for operators to reconsider their approach to aquatics and re-evaluate their outdated, underutilized municipal swimming pools. Many of them are in declining physical condition and struggling to compete with new family aquatic centers that likely feature the amenities of full-scale water parks.
Where To Begin?
The first step in the evaluation of an aquatic facility is recognizing that the pool and its amenities may no longer serve their users. This can be difficult to accept, but a closer look at the deteriorating condition of the pool structure, the unappealing changing area and locker room facilities, and the outdated mechanical systems will likely support an argument for improvement.
But before calling in a professional consulting team, a facility operator can troubleshoot several components of a pool on his or her own, including checking for shell leaks, conducting operational-safety and risk-management audits, performing life-expectancy evaluations, surveying users and evaluating chemical-safety and accessibility issues (see "Do It Yourself," p. 76).
In some cases, the pool itself may still be in sound structural condition and operating effectively, but it does not meet the market expectations of increasingly sophisticated users. Younger families, for example, probably won't find much appeal in a traditional deep-water competition pool. Successful aquatic centers offer amenities and programming for families, learn-to-swim students, competitive swimmers, water-fitness enthusiasts, seniors and therapy patients, as well as for people who just want to get wet and have fun.
First impressions are vital, so when taking that closer look, try to see the facility as a guest walking through the main entrance for the first time. Do ugly fencing and a lack of shade, deck chairs or other resting spots detract from the experience? Do dingy changing areas and locker rooms encourage swimmers to wear their suits to the facility in an effort to avoid those areas? Identify potential reasons for attendance declines and use them as a foundation upon which to develop your pool audit.
Once the need for change has been established, seek out staff members, facility users and residents of the community at large for their valuable input. Employees will draw from firsthand experience with operational problems, pool users will provide insight into what elements of the facility are not meeting their needs, and local residents who don't patronize the facility will offer reasons why they don't. Don't be afraid to use questionnaires and form discussion committees. If you demonstrate to all parties involved that you are serious about making improvements, they will be more likely to champion the cause.
Next, ask community members to rally public support for a professional pool evaluation. Many users, for example, may not realize that a facility is on the brink of closing due to declining revenues or understand the programming and financial goals that could be realized with a renovated or new facility. That's why it is crucial to honestly report the pool's specific shortcomings, share how an evaluation would result in a better facility, and help people envision how its revitalization would improve the community's collective wellness and quality of life. This can be done through newsletters, public forums, local media outlets and word of mouth among a core group of longtime supporters.
Where To Turn?
Once the consensus for an evaluation is reached, it's time to involve a professional aquatics consultant. This can be done through a request for proposal (RFP), which outlines specific facility needs. Would you like a detailed structural and mechanical evaluation that estimates the life expectancies of existing equipment and provides replacement recommendations in the pool areas only? Is it necessary to evaluate the entire site to ensure that it meets ADA requirements, parking and lighting guidelines, and building codes? What about the facility's surrounding elements? Would reconfiguring the entire site plan be beneficial? And would you like an evaluation of the current aquatic programs and a list of potential programming improvements?
A consulting team - which often consists of an architect, a financial consultant, an operations analyst, engineers and an aquatics expert - will evaluate the condition of the existing pool (including pool finishes, deck areas, gutter and filtration systems, pool water heating equipment, chemical feed and control systems, and piping and recirculation systems) and identify design or equipment liabilities. For example, badly cracked guardrails on diving platforms are an immediate red flag, as are the absence of safety barriers near wading pools and deep-water pools.
Meanwhile, old pumps may be less than energy efficient and could be preventing the filtration system from operating within state code requirements. And the lack of proper storage and separation of pool chemicals could invite a chemical spill disaster.
In some cases, a facility audit will reveal that the mechanicals and pool shell still have a lot of life left, meaning that a facility facelift that jazzes up the aesthetics may be all that's needed. Shade structures, enhanced signage, painted murals, new deck furniture and additional landscaping can highlight a cost-conscious revitalization plan.
Team members also will make determinations about the facility's ability to meet ADA requirements, state health standards, traffic flow codes and general safety regulations. The consultant's final report should detail the existing condition of the pool and its equipment and amenities - including life expectancies and recommended short-term and long-term repairs or replacements, along with cost estimates.
Given the broad scope of pool audits - from a basic pool and equipment evaluation to a full facility audit that includes financial, market and programming feasibility studies and a master plan - professional services can range from $2,500 to more than $60,000.
Be sure to request from each potential consultant a detailed outline of the proposed services and cost breakdowns. This will allow the consulting team to assemble the most qualified group of individuals to provide solutions to the issues you and your community groups have identified. Also request references from completed projects and call those contacts to ensure that they were pleased with the services they received from the consulting team in question.
After the facility has been inventoried, a variety of options will likely emerge, including renovation of the existing pool, an addition to the facility, a total renovation and expansion, or a full demolition and replacement. Which option best fits the needs of your facility? The answer will depend on the pool's physical condition and the goals - and budget - of your newly evolving aquatics program.
How Do You Create Change?
Pool operators must evaluate the cost of suggested improvements and the anticipated life span of an existing facility against the replacement costs and increased commercial value of a new facility. A team of feasibility and design consultants can make suggestions and project market trends, attendance and revenue for both a new and a renovated facility, but the ultimate decision rests with the pool operator.
The following examples illustrate the decisions made by pool operators in various communities around the country.
Officials at Mystic Waters Family Aquatic Center in Des Plaines, Ill., replaced underused sand volleyball areas with two spraypads that boast interactive elements. Spraygrounds and spraypads have emerged as popular new forms of aquatic recreation that fit most budgets and are easy to staff and operate. Many traditional pools still have fencing that separates wading pools from other pool features, but spraygrounds and pads allow those barriers to be removed and create a more open and inviting environment.
Officials in LaSalle, Ill., had that city's pool evaluated and determined that a renovation was in order. In an attempt to attract younger generations and create new recreation elements, they demolished and converted the existing shallow end of the pool into an activity area with interactive water features. The outdated diving pool was then converted into a drop slide and diving pool, and a spray ground replaced a separate wading pool. These exciting upgrades enhanced user satisfaction, while other changes invisible to the public eye - such as the installation of a new medium-rate sand filter to replace an old sand filtration system - created even more positive reactions in the form of exceptional water clarity.
A traditional municipal pool in Glen Rock, N.J., built in the 1950s, was once a focal point of the community. At the height of its popularity, the facility boasted the only 50-meter competition pool in the state and hosted a number of regional swim meets. Although the facility remained popular among some residents after those boom years, community leaders realized that the pool did not serve the recreational needs of families. A pool audit revealed that a renovation of the competition pool would be sufficient, but that the addition of a family pool with interactive play equipment would increase the facility's recreational value. New furnishings, large umbrellas, and attractive signage helped beautify the site and restore its popularity among residents.
In Green Bay, Wis., a site evaluation led to the decision by city officials to replace an outdated traditional pool and its support buildings with new facilities. Another location in the same park offered the additional space required for the new Joannes Family Aquatic Center. As a bonus, the setting was located further from abutting residential areas and featured easier vehicular access from a side road (rather than off a busy main street, which clogged the previous entrance). The new facility and location demonstrates that a successful pool facility is one that is properly sited within its community.
A professional, comprehensive pool evaluation will help determine the life expectancy of an existing aquatic facility, as well as inventory a community's future wants and needs.
The pools of yesteryear cannot satisfy the majority of today's swimmers, simply because they were not designed for broad, contemporary user demographics. Improvements - mechanical, operational and programmatic - can revitalize an old pool into a robust aquatic center that will improve the quality of life for its staff, patrons and municipal stakeholders. And it will ensure a healthy and vital aquatic recreation environment for future generations of swimmers who have yet to stride through your facility's main entrance for the first time.
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