With the last school bell of summer come the hordes of diversion seekers and the oppressive heat and humidity that sooner or later — sometimes both —drives them to water. Streams, pools, splash pads, even fire hydrants and lakes explode with attention that can be channeled into a revenue stream for cities.
Forward-thinking citizens in Plainfield, Ind., an unassuming suburb of Indianapolis, capitalized on the siren call of water in 1996. During a community assessment they asked the city for more recreational opportunities and even accepted a food and beverage tax to pay for it. Last year, a stunning number of visitors utilized the 8-year-old Plainfield Recreation and Aquatic Center.
The center is about one-third aquatic. A leisure pool and indoor water park are meeting their match in 2012 with an expansion of the outdoor portion of the water park and the installation of a lazy river.
“Since then it’s been a regular situation that the outside park is at capacity, and with the new lazy river, we expect to increase our capacity by 800,” Nate Thorne, Deputy Director, Plainfield Parks and Recreation, said. “There’s a very big demand for recreational water use.”
Despite the city’s population of less than 30,000, about 118,000 people stream into the facility every year. That level of success is due in part to the lack of similar facilities in the region — a fact that the parks department took into account during the center’s planning stage.
“The center opened in 2004 and has continued to meet with a tremendous level of success.
“In the Midwest, here in Indiana, we have very hot and humid summers. And as the new recreation center was being built. It was very innovative and had a lot of amenities for residents of all levels of swimming ability — not just those who are comfortable in the water,” Thorne noted.
“Twenty years ago, if you went swimming, if you didn’t have experience it could be really intimidating. Now, here, we have a lot of zero-depth entries, and shallow water so the nontraditional swimmer is comfortable,” he added.
The inherent risks of water oblige operators to ensure they have a well-trained and vigilant staff, which is one of the challenges of water-related programming. And of course there’s the basic funding question: to subsidize or not to subsidize.
In Ann Conklin’s experience, it’s public demand that drives the development of aquatic recreational development, as happened in Plainfield. The COO of Michigan Parks and Recreation, said that in her state they sometimes take the form of a public swimming beach, other times of a water sports beach, public pool or splash pad. Michigan is even in the process of responding to sportsmen’s suggestions that a water “trail” be developed for kayakers and canoers to traverse.
“The way the state grant program is set up, in order to receive a grant they have to have a five-year master plan in place, so they’re already looking at what their community wants to do in terms of recreation,” she said. “If residents have identified water recreation as a need, it should be in there.”
Because it is an investment, also, communities should have surveyed the members of their communities prior to committing funds or developing properties, she said.
At the very least, local water resources need to be recognized for their recreational purposes as a public service. Often, if a community doesn’t provide water-related public programming in the summer, residents will create opportunities to enjoy it anyway in unsupervised and less safe manners.