UGA students look at options for proposed aquatic center

MEMBERS OF THE Archway Partnership executive committee listened to a presentation on the proposed aquatic center during a meeting at Cairo County Club Thursday.

Graduate students at the University of Georgia presented their research into Grady County’s proposed sales tax funded Aquatic Center to the Archway Partnership executive committee Thursday.
The students, Megan Miller and Samara Scheckler, are working to earn master’s degrees in public administration at UGA. They were in Athens for the presentation, and visited with the board via Skype. Grady County Commission attorney Kevin Cauley joined the committee in Cairo for the discussion.
According to the findings, the commissioners must make a decision about how to spend the designated money in the coming months. The project was approved in a 2007 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) vote, but due to the economic downturn, tax collections have not been as high as expected. The six-year SPLOST is set to sunset in March 2014.
Building the aquatic center as proposed or rather going with a scaled back version of the project are two legal options the commissioners may take, according to the students. An option to use the money to pay down general obligation debts is apparently not an alternative since a recent change in the current law requires a public vote on such a change during the next SPLOST referendum. Grady County has already voted on its next SPLOST.
Based on interviews the students conducted with operators of several public pool facilities in the Southeast, those facilities built as large attractions are more likely to make money than those built as simply community pools. Still, communities where pools operate at losses consider the outdoor amenities as contributors to the public good in other ways, according to the research. The students spoke with operators of five public pool operations in Georgia, one in Tennessee and another in Alabama.
Based on their information, the students urge county leaders to clearly define the mission of the aquatic center, such as whether it’s for swimming competitions and practices, public health, or water park; design the facility so that it aligns with their revenue goals and is not too small; consider parking issues at the beginning; plan for expansion by leaving space available for future needs; involve the community in planning before funding comes to a vote; and use in-kind services and municipal labor where possible.
Once the facility is built, the students suggest, based on their research, that the county plan for ongoing management; plan for flexible staffing; invest in continuous staff training; explore contracting with private companies to reduce the cost of management and liability; allow private rentals of the facility; and develop a seasonal schedule around personnel availability.
In Tifton, the Baldwin Drive Aquatic Center operates at a loss of $70,000 per year even though it hosts several competitive swim meets each year that draw up to 5,000 people from 28 counties. “Nevertheless, the broader economic impact of having a pool with the capacity to host competitive meets has been extremely positive for the local community,” the report states.
In Newnan, pool operators said they should have made greater renovations to their public pools, which now draw lines of people waiting to get in during the summer. A slide and mushroom water feature have made the pool popular spots with residents, and a low $2 rate is attractive. Pool representatives told the UGA students that the recent upgrades to the pool were made based on attendance prior to the renovations, and now they wish they had expanded more.
In Moultrie, pool hours are being reduced this year due to budget constraints and lower than usual attendance last year. The city operates both a competitive outdoor pool, and a second pool that also includes a shallow kiddie pool with water features, which attracts a greater number of visitors each day. According to the report, a slide would make the pool more attractive to older children. The community considers the pools safe and affordable leisure aquatics opportunities, however it is difficult to identify money for needed renovations and expansions.
Moss Farms in Moultrie is a world class diving facility that is not typically open to the public but is a source of community pride. Developed privately, the center was later donated to the city for ongoing maintenance. The high school’s diving team has won state championships 35 out of the past 37 years due to access to the diving program, and competitions contribute economically to the community, according to the report.
In metro-Atlanta’s Decatur, several 30-year-old pools underwent repairs in the early 2000’s as part of a parks and recreation redevelopment plan. Updated pools were considered matters of good public health, the report states. Although no new water features were added, the city did a better job of promoting swim classes and competitive swim teams and saw a greater participation amongst youth and families. The city contracts with a private company for water quality and safety, and admissions revenues cover the cost of pool operations.
In Statesboro, Splash in the Boro includes multiple water features such as the only Flowrider in Georgia, and during the winter one of the park’s pools is enclosed under a dome to allow year round swimming. Set up as an enterprise account, admission fees and concession revenues make the park profitable nearly every year. The park draws visitors from three states and employs four full-time staff, and 100 seasonal workers.
In Decatur, Ala., Point Mallard is the site of the first wave pool in the United States, built in the 1960’s. The water park is part of a 500 acre family park, which also includes golf, camping, tennis, batting cages, walking trail, driving range and indoor ice rink. Although the water park has operated in the black nearly from the beginning, the complex overall is usually in the red and can become a political hot potato. The park is set up as an enterprise fund.
In Jonesborough, Tenn., Wetlands Water Park at Persimmon Ridge is also run as an enterprise fund and is built inside a 130 acre park that includes hiking trails and a small campground. Local non-profits and government funded youth programs get discounted or free admission, which sets up good will. The park is profitable nearly every year thanks to admission fees and concession revenues.
Grady County Archway Professional Sharon Liggett will present copies of the entire report officially to the Grady County Commission at an upcoming meeting.

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