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.

"When it first opened, I think that it was largely regarded in the recreational community as one of the nicest ones around, and I still think that's true," says Maryland Heights Mayor Michael O'Brien. "We're just tickled to death with the thing."

Some facilities seem to be driven, at least partly, by what exists in neighboring communities and longstanding rivalries between them. Take Kirkwood and Webster Groves.

Webster Groves was one of the first cities to build an aquatic center, which came as part of a grassroots effort to improve the community center with a year-round indoor ice rink. As the momentum for the ice rink built, says Mike Opperman, director of Webster Groves Parks, Recreation and Community Development, so did a push for a new pool to replace the 47-year-old one. The total project ended up costing $9.1 million, including a $2.2 million pool.

The new aquatic center had a wading pool with a wet playground; two slides, one of them an enclosed tube slide; a 200-foot-long lazy river; a raindrop umbrella; and zero-depth beach entry, where little ones can toddle in just a few inches of water. The facility's first full year was 1995. "It was a classic case of 'Build it, and they will come,'" Opperman says. "To be honest, we didn't have to do a whole lot of marketing, there was so much excitement and positive feedback. It was so new and so different from what people had seen before." But this aquatic facility wasn't open to just anyone. Only Webster's 23,000 residents could use it -- or guests they brought along with them.

It wasn't long before residents in nearby Kirkwood noticed -- but they couldn't get in unless they finagled a visit with friends in Webster Groves. Kirkwood had a 70-year-old pool in an out-of-the-way location on the edge of the city, and by 1996, the city was surveying residents on whether they wanted a new pool. By 1998, voters in Kirkwood had approved a sales tax for parks, and, in June 1999, the Recreation Station opened its doors. It, too, was exclusive. Only residents of Kirkwood, as well as the cities of Glendale and Oakland -- which pitched in to help with the $5.5 million cost -- could get in the doors, though they could bring a limited number of guests. "We did not want an overcrowded facility," says Kirkwood parks director David White.

And Kirkwood's aquatic complex had a train theme, a longer lazy river, and gadgets and gizmos that Webster's did not.

This time, though, it was residents of neighboring Des Peres who were shut out, even though that city first conducted a feasibility study back in 1996.

"When we opened," White says, "we got a lot of calls from [Des Peres] parents whose kids go to the [Kirkwood] school district. We were, like, 'You can go with a buddy who lives in Kirkwood, Glendale or Oakland,' and I think that was disappointing to people who lived in Des Peres."

But that city of 8,500 residents is now jumping on the bandwagon. Des Peres is planning a 74,000-square-foot recreation facility that threatens, in many ways, to outdo Kirkwood's. Estimated to cost between $13 million and $16 million, it will have a gym and fitness center, jogging track, meeting rooms and babysitting facilities. It is slated to have an indoor wave pool -- something neither Kirkwood nor Webster has -- as well as an indoor slide with a splashdown pool, a spa whirlpool and a toddler pool, plus an outdoor leisure pool with a lazy river, slides and a play area.

"Nobody else has a wave pool, so that's one of our unique features," says Susan Trautman, Des Peres director of parks and recreation. "The best advantage I have is being one of the later facilities to come online. I can see the mistakes that were made in the others, ones that the general public wouldn't see, and know how to improve it."

Many smaller cites refuse to be left out.

Crestwood begins work on an $8 million project in August, Manchester is planning a $4 million aquatic center, and even Maplewood, with a population of about 9,500, has gotten in on the act with plans for a $5.5 million family aquatic center -- even though nearby neighbors Richmond Heights and Clayton recently opened expensive new facilities. Richmond Heights' $14.1 million rec center is open to nonresidents; Clayton's $20 million facility, with its four basketball courts, climbing wall, running tracks, and leisure and competition pools, was restricted to residents until February, when the city's Board of Aldermen changed the policy. "So many people were coming through the door wanting to come in, and it seemed like we could handle the added usage," says Patty DeForrest, Clayton's aquatics supervisor.

Maplewood's facility will be less ambitious than Richmond Heights' or Clayton's, but city officials still want to make sure it's competitive. Maplewood's family aquatic pool will include slides and play features, a toddler pool and a 50-meter lap pool, plus two diving boards and a "drop slide" that ends about 3 feet above the water. "There is still a strong demand here for a plain rectangular pool that has some depth to it, but we want to make it so it is more of a family-style pool like Webster's and Kirkwood's and Crestwood's. To stay competitive, you need to put those kind of features that people of the '90s and the year 2000 want to see. And that is slides and zero-depth entry and some playground features," says Tom Grellner, Maplewood parks and recreation director.

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