Town's Plunge Into Water Parks

This is not your mother's town pool.

The orderly geometry is gone. The pin-striped rectangular hole in the ground is history.

Here in Plainville, Conn., grade-schoolers Alicia Barger and Dana Cefaratti dance in giant fountains. They giggle all the way down a 60-foot tube slide. And when the girls actually swim, it's in an amoeba-shaped pool with a gradual, beach-like entry area.

If the Elizabeth A. Berner municipal facility sounds suspiciously like a "Wet-N-Wild" commercial water park, you're right. Increasingly, suburbanites are demanding to spend their summers around something other than a cement pond. "The most significant trend in swimming is converting traditional [town] pools to family aquatic centers," says Walter Johnson of the National Recreation and Park Association, Great Lakes region.

Wave pools, whirlpools, and diving tanks are in. And the pursuit of H20 as entertainment doesn't end at the pool deck - some town pools boast a sand volleyball court, a sand play area, and concession stands stocked with salads, sandwiches, and gourmet ice cream bars.

The popularity of water cannons, slides, and squirting concrete animals at water parks as well as the declining attendance (and profitability) at many municipal pools is prompting the transformation. The renovations are also triggered by aging water-filtration systems reaching the end of their 20-year life spans.

The old familiar town pools, which were often designed around competitive swimming, don't have as much appeal to young people and families as a place to spend the day. When the time comes to consider updating municipal facilities, many towns are deciding to build a new complex to appeal to as many people as possible.

In Plainville, before the transformation, the old swimming hole attracted about 12,000 people each year. After the opening of the Berner pool in July 1996, attendance now tops 30,000 each summer, according to Colin Regan, the recreation director. "There was a lot of time and effort in planning the facility before it was built." he says. "And it is used by all ages - from tiny tots to senior citizens."

In the United States, the ocean-deprived Midwest leads the way in moving toward municipal water parks - possibly due to the fact that 41 percent of the 203,000 municipal pool facilities in the US are in that region. But the "aqualeisure center" phenomenon is spreading across the country.

Rehabbing a town pool doesn't come cheap. And these projects often meet with opposition.

Taxpayers may balk at spending from $1 million to $5 million, depending on the scope of the renovations and the features, for a facility that may only be used for three months of the year. Parking, zoning, and traffic concerns from neighbors are issues that have to be addressed. And the operational costs may rise, too. "It does require more staff," says Mr. Regan, who went from six to 10 full-time employees.

As a result of such concerns, sometimes the renovations are not as extensive as originally conceived. The board of a new YMCA pool in Lincoln, R.I., for example, recently rebuilt its facility at a cost of $1 million. But the board held off on putting in a wave machine, which would cost an additional $100,000, until later when more funding (and citizen support) may be available.

The town of Plainville dodged most of the funding concerns because it received a $1.1 million donation from a longtime resident, Victor Berner, to build the facility. The recreation department won public support by sending out surveys to each of the 17,000 households with the intention to build "whatever the town wanted," says Karen Crowley, the town's aquatic supervisor. When the results came in, residents "didn't pick the diving board or the Olympic-size pool," she says.

As a result, the pool attracts a greater cross-section of the town's population. Residents are clearly pleased with their three-pools-in-one choice. There's a beach entry area that dissolves into a lap pool and a series of peninsulas with water spouts near a deep pondlike area.

The recreation department now offers an American Red Cross swimming program in the mornings and classes are fuller now.

The beachlike entry makes the pool useful for all course levels, particularly the youngest age groups. "There is less fear than in a regular pool; there is such a difference from a pool with a three-foot depth. It's a great teaching tool," says Ms. Crowley.

It's also a feature that appeals to parents of small children. With no more difficult ladders to navigate, the gentle slope allows little ones to splash in the water while parents keep cool nearby. It also facilitates access for disabled swimmers.

Safety has not been compromised, say Plainville officials, with the addition of water fountains and slides; more lifeguards are strategically placed around the facility, and at the top and bottom of each slide.

Despite larger attendance, children no longer have to wait for the sound of the lifeguard whistle to signal that it's time for "free swim" - the size of the pool can accommodate everyone and still have room for the kickboard set who want to swim laps.

The Plainville pool includes a section with four lap lanes - as opposed to the usual regulation six lanes. While there is an adult lap swim time from 6 to 8 p.m., the rest of the pool remains open.

The new arrangement appeals to many patrons. Chris Kiss, a Plainville resident, spoke of a private pool in Farmington where she took her two sons. "It was more segregated," she said. "The older kids were always apart from the younger."

For many families with busy schedules or financial challenges that make a vacation difficult, the new municipal water park provides affordable entertainment.

"It really caters to the community and families," David Snyder, the pool director and lifeguard, as he surveys the crowd. "It was nice to see everyone work together to make this what it is."

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