Community Swimming Pools Receiving Makeovers

The $12 million, 3-acre Rogers Aquatic Center opened last week. City officials believe the park will attract visitors from across northwest Arkansas.
The $12 million, 3-acre Rogers Aquatic Center opened last week. City officials believe the park will attract visitors from across northwest Arkansas.
The city of Clarksville will open its $10 million water park this summer. It will feature a lazy river and an indoor competitive pool.
The city of Clarksville will open its $10 million water park this summer. It will feature a lazy river and an indoor competitive pool.

The $12 million Rogers Aquatics Center opened last week in northwest Arkansas, making the city the latest municipality to build its own water park.

Among the cities giving their community swimming pools a makeover:

  • The city of Clarksville is expected to open its $10 million aquatic park this summer.
  • The city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County have teamed up to build an $8 million water park. It is expected to open by Memorial Day 2015.
  • Residents of White Hall recently approved a bond issue to help pay for an approximately $7.5 million water park. It could be open in 2015.

Since 2000, a number of Arkansas cities have built their own water parks, which typically feature water play areas and slides connected to swimming pools.

“Over the years, we’ve found a declining interest in the traditional swimming pool,” said Andy Smith, the group leader at Larkin Aquatics of Kansas City, Mo., which designed the parks in Clarksville and Fort Smith. “When residents in the community have other options, they would prefer to go to something that offers a bit more in leisure amenities.”

This interest in enhanced swimming activities has sparked an aquatic parks arms race between cities. If a neighboring community has a water park, then the other community wants one and it has to be bigger and better than the previous water center, said Darren Bevard, studio director for Counsilman-Hunsaker of St. Louis, which designs water parks. And the next one has to “do something new and fresh to try and steal some of that attendance,” he said.

Don Zimmerman, the executive director of the Arkansas Municipal League, said he expects the trend of cities building water parks to continue. If city officials “see these as popular in other cities, their citizens will probably start requesting that in their own city,” Zimmerman said.

The cost of operating a water park, which could be as high as $500,000 a season, is typically covered through admission fees.

Water Park Challenges

Construction began on Clarksville’s aquatic center in October, said Leo Anhalt, president of SSI Inc. of Fort Smith, which is building the project.

This is the first water park in SSI’s 44-year history, Anhalt said. And it came at the right time because the project kept the company’s employees working through the winter months, he said. SSI’s 2012 revenue was $34 million, up 70 percent from the previous year and good enough to tie at No. 13 on Arkansas Business’ list of largest commercial contractors ranked by revenue. 

One of the challenges of building a water park is all the pipes necessary for the job. “The piping is just an unbelievable spider web … in those things,” Anhalt said. “It really takes a good mechanical guy to get that installed properly.”

He said the Clarksville project is on schedule, and its first phase should open by July 4. That first phase includes a “lazy river” for floating, a play area for children and a “zero-entry” pool, which means it doesn’t have any steps and just gently slopes from the deck into the pool.

The second phase of the project includes an indoor pool scheduled to open in September. It features an eight-lane competitive pool and a therapeutic pool.

The city passed a 1 percent sales tax in 2011 to pay for the center, said Tom Cogan, Clarksville Parks & Recreation director.

Other Projects

The Rogers Aquatics Center, which opened Saturday, was paid for with a 2011 bond issue, said Suzy Turek, the Rogers Aquatics Center manager. The bond will be repaid with revenue from a 1 percent sales tax.

The 3-acre park features 750,000 gallons of water and speed slides, a lazy river, a rock-climbing wall and pools for competitive swimming, families and for small children.

The general contractor was Flintco LLC of Tulsa, which completed the project in 18 months.

Turek said the seasonal cost to operate the park is $500,000. But she said it’s a way to generate tax revenue by luring tourists to the city.

Meanwhile, the city of Fort Smith and Sebastian County are ironing out the final details of an aquatic park that will be built in Ben Geren Park.

“We’re in the process of deciding how we’re going to build it, with a construction manager or with a general contractor,” said Sebastian County Judge David Hudson.

Hudson said the county’s pool closed in 2004 after nearly 40 years of service. Residents, surveyed about what they wanted in a new swimming facility, answered with a water park.

The county and the city will split the construction cost of the park, Hudson said. The park will feature a zero-entry pool, play areas for children of all ages, a lazy river and several slides.

“It provides more recreation opportunities to the citizens and all the different age groups,” Hudson said.

‘A Wonderful Addition’

Cities that have water parks praise them.

“It’s been a wonderful addition to the city,” said Jimmy Bolt, city manager of Arkadelphia, which opened its approximately $3 million water park in 2002.

He said about half the people who come to the park come from outside of the city. The water park features water slides and pools for children.

The city of Alma opened what may have been the first municipal water park in the state in 2000, said Mayor John Ballentine.

The initial cost was $1 million, but slides and a zero-entry pool have been added over the years, bringing the total spent on the park to about $3 million, Ballentine said.

He said the park has been a hit for the city of about 5,000 people. It had 53,000 visitors last summer and generated about $350,000 in revenue. It cost about $250,000 to operate the park, allowing the profit to be reinvested in the center, he said.

Ballentine said that when the Fort Smith’s water center opens, attendance at Alma’s park might suffer. “Anything new will hurt you for a while,” he said.

But then he started pitching the advantages of the Alma water park: It has more slides than the Fort Smith one will have, and new features such as a climbing wall will be added this year.

Running a water park is just “like any other business,” Ballentine said. “You just try … and offer something that nobody else has.”