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.

Whereas Florissant has an aquatic park, an indoor pool, a community center and a golf course, neighboring Ferguson has struggled to sell voters on its own community center, including a state-of-the-art indoor aquatic center and gymnasium. Twice, voters have rejected the idea; the second time, the vote fell a few hundred shy of what was required. Ferguson Mayor Steve Wegert firmly believes a new recreation complex is something the city needs. "We're in competition with the new suburbs. Ferguson has its own charms, but you are comparing apples against oranges, newer versus older. These water parks are an amenity we're hearing more and more people want to have in their community. They want places where they can gather, a place to swim and play and recreate, and that's an area where our facilities are behind the curve."

The first time the proposal went to voters, the community center was to be funded by a combination of a property-tax increase and a half-cent sales tax for parks. The second time, Wegert says, it was to be funded solely by a property-tax increase, because several businesses said the sales-tax increase would put them at a competitive disadvantage. Both attempts failed. "It was a hard sell for many in the community," he says. "I have to attribute it to a large population of folks on a fixed income, and they're very cautious of any increase in taxes." Still, he expects the measure will go to the voters a third time: "Looking at the numbers, it wasn't beaten soundly. The numbers were strong. That tells me the interest is there."

The biggest of the have-nots in the metro area, cash-strapped St. Louis, is also trying to get into the indoor-leisure-pool business, but finding that money is a big issue. St. Louis has three outdoor pools and five indoor ones, but none compares with The Point, the Rec-Plex or RiverChase. The city is considering building some type of indoor leisure pool in conjunction with the federally funded Hope VI project at the old Darst-Webbe housing-project site, which includes plans to build a new recreation center. But it all depends on whether the city can come up with enough funding, says Dan Skillman, the city's commissioner of parks.

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

"They do require considerably more staffing and maintenance than your typical swimming pool, and all of our facilities are free of charge, so we don't really have the revenue stream the other municipalities have to offset the additional cost to operate these," Skillman says. Daily admission fees -- usually around $3-$5 for residents -- pay the lion's share of the operating costs at other municipal water parks, but in the city of St. Louis, the Board of Aldermen has passed a resolution pledging that all the city's recreational facilities will be open and free to the public.

"We would love to get into that business, but, again, it is getting over building something with that cost and allowing the public to enter and use it for free," Skillman says.

Jones, the political scientist, says cities generally don't take on these types of projects until after calculating how much they will cost them. "Usually, there's a lot of public support for this, up to and including raising the taxes to cover the costs," he says. "Most of the municipalities that do this sort of thing have arrived at their own balance of how much of the cost is picked up by every taxpayer and how much is picked up through user fees. The general rule of thumb is, all the taxpayers support the capital cost of the facilities. The marginal costs are passed on to the user."

For all their popularity, the new community centers and aquatic facilities have not been completely without controversy. There have been disputes with contractors, criticism from some residents and lingering concern that some facilities may turn into money pits. Richmond Heights' center opened more than 10 months behind schedule and more than $1 million over budget. There, the city fired its lead architect, David Mason and Associates, blaming the firm for a number of problems, including a design that placed a pool slide in the same spot as overhead ducts. The firm sued the city; the city countersued.

In Kirkwood, a group called Keep Kirkwood Green -- which supports more passive uses of greenspace in the city -- has raised questions about such things as the 1997 survey that led to the construction of the city's aquatic complex. The survey, for instance, found that 52 percent of respondents favored both an indoor pool and an outdoor family aquatic center and only 25 percent favored an outdoor family aquatic center with a pool, slides, sprays and playground equipment. City officials, however, went ahead with the outdoor family aquatic center, saying 77 percent of the people surveyed supported it. Some residents also opposed Kirkwood's sales-tax increase because it didn't include a sunset provision, meaning it will continue long after the new pool is paid off, says Kathy Paulsen, president of Keep Kirkwood Green.

"This is really one of those sensitive topics. People love it -- it's a great toy, and it's hard to be critical of it because of that," she says, describing attendance at the new aquatic center as phenomenal. "My kids are swimmers, so I'd be the last person to say I don't want a pool, but it wasn't the kind of pool I wanted. If we were going to spend $6 million, I thought they should have spent $3 million at the park and put in a nice pool with fewer bells and whistles and cooperated with the school district in using the other $3 million toward an indoor pool at the high school."

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