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.

Grellner says there is "always the competition between cities and parks districts, but you've got to keep in mind that what you're trying to do is serve your population and not get too caught up in keeping up with the Joneses." Still, that city has sought out a pool designer from Wisconsin that other cities have not used: "We wanted to be a little bit different," he says.

Former Maplewood Mayor Jane Moeller, who left office in April after eight years as mayor, says her city's officials "just want to keep up with the times. We want some of those slides and mushrooms with water dripping down on them. Some people go to a pool and actually swim, and they need the 50-meter pool, but some of us like to sunbathe. I think it's just great."

Moeller says Maplewood's pool will be more subdued than a huge facility such as the St. Peters Rec-Plex. "It won't be like that," she says, "but we don't need that."

Austin Klump (left), 2, and his brother Mike, 4, at the RiverChase aquatic center in Fenton
Jennifer Silverberg
Austin Klump (left), 2, and his brother Mike, 4, at the RiverChase aquatic center in Fenton


Ten years ago, when the current building frenzy took off with the Blanchette facility, indoor aquatic facilities were already the rage in Europe, with amenities such as saunas and whirlpools and slides and fountains and play equipment. Not only did they replace archaic "square ponds," the new types of facilities often made money or broke even, unlike the traditional city pools. Residents of St. Charles were surveyed on what they wanted. Ash, the St. Charles parks director, says that although respondents were interested in slides and fountains and kiddie equipment, they were more likely to express a preference for the old-fashioned pools with diving boards. The city decided to keep a lap pool and diving area at Blanchette but to also build a zero-depth-entry pool with slides. Voters in 1991 approved a property tax to pay for it. At the same time, the city began work to update its McNair pool in a similar way, though on a smaller scale. The pools were so popular that, in 1996, St. Charles built a third pool, at a cost of $3.2 million, that was bigger and better, with such splashy features as a "dark ride," in which an inner tube slides underground, from darkness to daylight.

In nearby St. Peters, officials had set another standard for indoor recreation when they decided to build the $16 million Rec-Plex, which opened in 1994. Originally slated to cost $11 million, it was expanded when the Olympic Festival was awarded to St. Louis and the region needed a venue with a 50-meter lap pool and diving platform, along with adequate seating for spectators. The Rec-Plex marked a first for the St. Louis area, with amenities including a zero-depth-entry indoor leisure pool with a water slide, a lazy river and a swirling-vortex pool (often referred to as the "toilet bowl"). It also has two ice arenas, one indoor and one covered but outdoors, as well as a double-sized gym with an elevated walking track, a rock-climbing wall, a fitness center, babysitting services and a 6,000-square-foot food court serving such treats as hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza and ice cream.

Jeff King, recreation director for St. Peters, says the Rec-Plex started a wave of recreation-center building as people in other communities, perhaps for the first time, began to realize what they were missing: "Once the Rec-Plex was built, shortly thereafter Ballwin and Webster, other communities, started saying, 'What's unique about Ballwin, Webster Groves and St. Peters? Why can't we have those facilities in our community?' Then we saw another generation with Fenton, Clayton and Richmond Heights, and so now there is another generation being planned, like in Des Peres. It kind of perpetuates itself, and we're even seeing these facilities pop up outside the St. Louis area as well -- Ste. Genevieve, Perryville, Columbia, Rolla."

And King says such grand facilities can nurture a community's pride. "I know the city of St. Peters is tremendously proud of the Rec-Plex," he says, "and if you ask people -- this has been validated in surveys -- what they're most proud of in the city, Rec-Plex is always at the top of that list. Ballwin actually has pockets of unincorporated areas volunteering for annexation because of The Point. And you see it in subtle ways, during the holidays, when residents are entertaining relatives, you see a lot of them bringing in their relatives to show the place off."

But many parks directors refuse to concede that any sort of one-upmanship is at work, and the Rec-Plex still stands as the largest such indoor facility in the region. "I don't think there is a competition to build bigger and better," says Don Schmidt, Florissant's superintendent of recreation. "I do think there is a competition among municipalities to provide these services to their residents: 'They have that, why can't we get something like that?' Every municipality has its own idiosyncrasies. It's a question of trying to keep pace with providing services that are attractive to their residents."

It hasn't worked everywhere. There remains a long list of have-nots, especially among the smallest and poorest municipalities in North St. Louis County. And in some places, getting a snazzy new pool has been a tough sell.

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