Taking the Plunge

St. Louis' suburban cities have been competing for years to build the biggest and best places to play. Around here, keeping up appearances is serious business.

But it's not just the sales tax that's driving the construction of these new facilities; it's also a case of good old-fashioned municipal one-upmanship. "There's definitely a 'keeping up with the Joneses' aspect to it," Ostlund says.

Terry Jones, a political-science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an expert on the region's fractured governments, says this latest fad is really nothing new for the middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs of St. Louis. The poorer municipalities can't afford such amenities, and the residents of wealthier ones -- Ladue, for instance -- tend to join private clubs. "One of the things they have historically done is to purchase recreation collectively," Jones says. "It makes a lot of sense in those municipalities that have a lot of children to do this as a group. Whatever happens to be the latest recreation craze -- hockey rinks 15 years ago was the 'in' thing to do -- and swimming pools, indoor and outdoor, have been a perennially popular item."

And in St. Louis County, where the population of approximately 1 million has remained steady for some 30 years, cities are constantly competing against one another to make their residential properties more desirable and increase their value. Building a megapool is one way to do that, Jones says: "If one municipality is offering a wider and broader array of recreational opportunities, by God, then we've got to offer those too, or else. We've set up a very competitive environment in St. Louis County. This is one way in which they respond in that environment."

Webster Groves was among the first cities to build a major aquatic center. It wasn't long before residents of nearby Kirkwood noticed.
Jennifer Silverberg
Webster Groves was among the first cities to build a major aquatic center. It wasn't long before residents of nearby Kirkwood noticed.
The late James Eagan, former mayor of Florissant, bragged that his city's aquatic center was the "crown jewel" of the Florissant parks system.
Jennifer Silverberg
The late James Eagan, former mayor of Florissant, bragged that his city's aquatic center was the "crown jewel" of the Florissant parks system.

Nowadays, cities aren't just building their own cookie-cutter aquatic and recreation centers, they're demanding that they reflect a community's flavor. They're bragging about them. They're giving them names such as "The Point," "The Heights," "RiverChase," "Aquaport." In St. Charles, the Blanchette pool was intended to reflect the area's French history; in Kirkwood, the design was supposed to be in keeping with the city's train theme, with a snack bar shaped like a railroad car and the name Recreation Station. In Crestwood, officials want to forego generic landscape pavers and opt for natural stone to reflect the new aquatic center's location in Whitecliff Park, near what was once an old quarry.

"Often there is a desire to have something bigger, better, different. Nobody wants to be like the other guy," says David Markey, whose Atlanta-based engineering firm, Markey & Associates, designed more than a half-dozen municipal aquatic centers in the St. Louis area. "They want something that matches their perception of their community. And better is in the eye of the beholder."

For some cities, building a recreational facility can be about shaping an identity. The city of Fenton built a huge center, RiverChase, that opened in 1999 with an indoor leisure pool with attached lap lanes, plus an outdoor aquatic facility with a competition-size pool. The 71,000-square-foot facility also includes two basketball courts, a fitness facility with an indoor track, a game room, preschool rooms, children's rooms, a multipurpose room, three meeting rooms and a birthday-party room by the pool. All this -- at a cost of $13.5 million -- for a city with just 4,300 residents.

Mary Jo Dessieux, Fenton director of parks and recreation, says the facility was designed to draw users from the surrounding unincorporated area's 40,000 residents. And it has been a source of pride for the city, she says. "We're known all over," Dessieux says. "All the other parks-and-recreation departments know it. You can see us from Highway 44, directly across from Chrysler. It lights up at night -- I can see it when I'm coming westbound on 44 at Geyer. I can see it on 270, but I have to look really fast. I can see it from Big Bend and Highway 141," Dessieux says. "It's a great facility."

Scot Hunsaker, president of Counsilman/Hunsaker & Associates, a St. Louis engineering firm with a national practice specializing in aquatics, says building super-duper pleasure palaces is all part of increasing competition to be seen as an attractive community. His company has designed pools across the country, as well as in Rolla, Columbia and Farmington. In the St. Louis area, his company has designed the pools in Fenton and Chesterfield and at the St. Peters Rec-Plex, among others.

"The city of Fenton made a major statement with its location on 44. It had been referred to more as a working community than as a great place to live. They used that facility as a strong statement to the surrounding area: 'Not only is Fenton a great place to work, but it's a great place to live.'"

Maryland Heights firmly believes bigger is better. When Maryland Heights' Aquaport opened in June 1998 at a cost of $4.8 million, the city hoped it would draw people from all over the county, and it did, including residents from the city of St. Louis and Illinois and as far south as Jefferson County. It helped that the Aquaport's slides were easily visible from Interstate 270. "The first year, it was just unbelievable," says Kim Hedgpeth, assistant director of parks and recreation. "Our daily averages were well over 1,000 people."

Other parks have been built since then, but, for the most part, Hedgpeth says Aquaport is unmatched, given its 8,000-square-foot "family-fun pool" and five slides, including a 160-foot "wild rapids" slide, an enclosed tube slide, an open flume and side-by-side racer slides, as well as a 740-foot-long lazy river. "I think the only one right now competitive with Maryland Heights' is Kirkwood's," she says. "I think Maryland Heights' has a really wonderful aspect, which is our natural terrain. You don't have to climb towers to go down our slides -- we built them into the side of the hill. It lends itself to a very neat appearance."

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