Municipal Spas?

Read why it is important for public aquatic facilities to keep up with the times.

By D. Scot Hunsaker and Michelle Schwartz | October 2008
Aquatics International

Modern businesses typically choose communities with cultural and recreational amenities that allows them to attract and retain a well-educated workforce. This enlarges the tax base and stimulates the economy, which then provides more tax revenue that parks and recreation agencies can use to enhance or expand infrastructure, facilities, and programs. This is why it’s so important for public aquatic facilities to keep up with the times and provide the amenities and services that future generations will expect and demand.

A big part of those expectations are the result of tourism, now a multi-billion dollar industry. U.S. tourism was estimated at $518 billion annually, according to a 2007 report on CNN.Money.com. And global tourism was estimated at $880 billion annually, said a 2007 report on TerraDaily.com. These travelers have seen what European aquatic facilities offer and are bringing their desire for these experiences back home.

For instance, Schwaben Quellen, a large spa/waterpark complex located in Stuttgart, Germany, offers multiple steam rooms, saunas, and adventure showers (themed shower experiences complete with special lighting, sounds, and aromatherapy). Guests can even roll in the snow following use of a sauna or other type of steam room. At Wave-die Worgler Wasserwelten in Austria, concentrated body-warm (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) saline baths enriched with salt from the Dead Sea create a seemingly weightless floating experience with a play of colors and atmospheric underwater music.

With lifetime expectancy up 30 years since 1900, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, adults are strong advocates of well-being amenities—that is, therapy pools, leisure pools, and lap swimming at U.S. aquatic centers. Thus, the addition of European spa amenities will be embraced.

Other adult amenities include exquisite poolside dining, a combination of tranquil and exhilarating pools, infinity edge, cascading waterfalls, hydrotherapy bubbling caves, and waterart fountains.

The addition of more adult amenities will influence childcare activities so that mom and dad can partake in revitalization, purification, and other well-being experiences. Childcare activities will foster more supervised events inspired by kids’ clubs on cruise ships, hotels, and resorts.

Environmental intelligence is the next area of change. With many municipalities already requiring LEED standards and other advancements, the aquatic design industry will include more green building methods. Although they have higher initial costs, green pools will “LEED” the way to a healthier atmosphere for swimmers as well as the environment, while substantially lowering operating costs through water conservation and energy efficiency. Strategies also will include a comprehensive design analysis related to biodiversity (site preservation and encroachment issues), nearby urban transit and innovative practices.

Innovative examples include the reuse of pool wastewater from backwashing and deck drains for flushing toilets in the bathhouse; the use of a regenerative filtration system for a 200-gallon backwash rather than a 5,000-gallon backwash; and the inclusion of ultraviolet light systems for water purification that will routinely monitor and treat pool water by sterilizing bacteria, viruses, and molds and their spores, as well as help continuously remove chloramines from natatoriums.

Additionally, each municipality must determine whether mutually exclusive facilities (separate competition venues and separate recreation venues) or multi-generational facilities (combined venues) would be more appropriate. Competition pools, particularly championship venues, bring tourism revenue to local hotels, restaurants, and businesses. But tomorrow’s competition pools will offer movable floors and bulkheads to accommodate classes, lap swimming, and competition training simultaneously.

Municipalities will continually be challenged in the next 10 years when replacing old neighborhood swimming pools as waterpark-type amenities—lazy rivers, play features, waterslides and catch pools—require additional lifeguards. Because many universities, colleges, and high schools currently start classes in early to mid-August, this creates staffing challenges. Already, many aquatic centers must close early in the summer season due to lack of lifeguards.

Thus, leaders will be forced to decide whether to compete for aquatic professionals, who can manage a cutting edge facility or dilute control by opting for contract management to a third party in a public/private partnership. While many third-party entities can provide management skills, they may not be aligned with city goals of balanced programming. A competitive swimming club would have a competitive swimming emphasis; a developer would have a recreation swimming emphasis; and a local aquatic management group may not comply with equal opportunity practices.

Ultimately, the aquatic experience must be nurtured as a commodity. Water is a natural resource that must be treated with respect and innovative technology. Leisure is a commodity that evolves in conjunction with tourism. And tourism can boost the membership at cutting edge aquatic centers.

Municipalities must take a leadership role in managing evolving customer expectations as well as the environment. It is then up to communities to see the enhancement of the aquatic center as a way to improve the area and retain free enterprise.