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.

Paulsen believes the availability of sales-tax funding has contributed to the proliferation of costlier facilities: "I think if these would have been done on property-tax money, we wouldn't be seeing this kind of an epidemic. I wish it had been approached more from an area perspective, like a county park. To have operations of these magnitudes, it seems like it would have been more appropriate in a cooperative situation, where you're not building one on every block but one that is available to a lot of people."

More recently, Keep Kirkwood Green raised questions about Jacobs Facilities Inc., a local firm that has designed or served as construction manager on a handful of the pool and recreational facilities in the St. Louis area, including those in Kirkwood, Webster Groves and Fenton, after Kirkwood hired the firm to poll residents on what recreational amenities they wanted to see. Keep Kirkwood Green questioned whether this posed a conflict, because Jacobs might benefit from work on future projects identified in the survey. In a letter to the city, Jacobs executive Brad Simmons angrily responded to the criticism by dismissing critics as "a few fringe individuals," then asking that his company "be formally excused from consideration on any potential projects that may result from the first phase of this comprehensive parks and recreation master plan."

For the most part, the new recreation centers and municipal water parks draw more enthusiasm than criticism, and many cities have been willing to subsidize at least part of the operating costs as a service to residents. Few of the facilities are expected to make money, and most are either expected to either break even or recoup 60 to 80 percent of their costs, with the city paying the rest.

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

David Markey, the Atlanta-based aquatic-center designer, says that whereas traditional rectangular pools were regular money losers, the newer facilities aren't big money holes, because they can draw as many as 120,000 visitors to an old pool's 10,000. Visitors to aquatic centers tend to stay longer, he says, an average of three or four hours rather than one or two.

Those cities that do expect to make money, however, will probably be disappointed.

The St. Charles pools used to be a cash cow, with the three pools bringing in $150,000-$200,000 a year above and beyond the costs of operating and maintaining the facilities. But that was before the competition began to multiply -- with new pools in Florissant and Maryland Heights and Chesterfield and the opening of Hurricane Harbor at Six Flags. Two years ago, the pools lost $60,000, and last year, the pools barely broke even.

Ash, the St. Charles parks director, says it isn't just the competition. As time goes on, what once was a novelty -- for instance, the Blanchette aquatic facility -- soon seems like "old hat" as cities such as Florissant and Ballwin and Maryland Heights build new ones with newer gadgets and more exciting attractions. So does the threat of oversaturation exist? "Sure," says Ash. "It's no different than any other kind of facility you see communities build, whether it's baseball fields or softball fields. When it's tough to get on the field or you can't find a field, everybody builds, and the tendency then is to overbuild. And very few municipalities and governmental units talk to each other and coordinate what they're doing for the market."

He says government budgets "are no different than the business world. You have your ups and downs and the booms and busts. You do real well, and then it goes down the tubes. But when you do invest in these, you rarely see them close down until they're too old, and then it depends on whether you can reshape or rebuild them." Indoor pools haven't affected St. Charles' because in the summertime, he says, people "like the sun." Still, he believes more intergovernmental cooperation could be a good thing. "I think all governments should take that into account, take a look at each other. Land and space is drying up -- there isn't a lot of vacant ground, and the cost of ground is expensive, the cost of building is expensive. It makes sense for people to pool their assets."

Then again, this is St. Louis, home of more than 100 different municipalities.

"Regionalism is a good concept," Ash says, "but everybody likes their own."

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