story by Ryan Saylor
The Fort Smith Board of Directors and the Sebastian County Quorum Court approved resolutions Monday evening (Jan. 6) that would add a wave pool to the Ben Geren Aquatics Center while moving a dive well to near the bottom of the governments' priority list for water park amenities, essentially killing a part of the project that had been the focus of much contention just 11 months ago.
The wave pool was added in order to draw in more potential users for the facility, to be built on county land on the north side of Ben Geren Regional Park, according to Andy Smith of Larkin Aquatics.
With the facility's budget now set at $10.9 million and both governments approving the addition of the wave pool, the facility will now consist of three bodies of waters, a 500 foot lazy river and four water slides for a total footprint of more than 20,000 square feet, making it the largest water park in the region. Smith said the water park will also include a concessions and rental pavilion.
"Ben Geren will be the largest facility in the region and it will have some very unique features compared to other facilities in the region with the wave pool and with the tallest slides," Smith said, adding that two slides will be at a height of 40 feet while two additional slides will stand at a height of 30 feet.
"Rogers' tallest slides are 35 feet. Yours will be 40, that's what we're budgeting for," he said. "So you can see this is a substantial facility."
Prior to the vote, city directors and justices of the peace heard from President and CEO Kent Lemasters of Amusement Aquatic Management Group of Tustin, Calif. Lemasters, whose travel expenses of between $1,000 and $1,200 will be reimbursed from the Fort Smith Parks and Recreation Department's operating funds, told the elected officials that adding the wave pool would be the item that would set the Fort Smith facility apart from nearby competitors, offering an amenity often only found at professional facilities in Branson, Little Rock, or Tulsa.
"I have reviewed your plans as they progressed along and the latest plans I've reviewed just today, the final plans I see, you have now stepped into being a full-fledged water park."
Lemasters, who has been in contact with Fort Smith Parks Director Mike Alsup for the last several months but is not being paid any fees by either the city or county, said the next step beyond creating an attraction that will attract tens of thousands of visitors will be to market the facility to those potential visitors and set a price point that will allow the governments to turn a profit.
"You can build the finest facility, but if you don't market that facility you may not hit your numbers, so we're big on marketing," he said.
He said while marketing will be important, it will not amount to a profit unless the pricing model is done right.
Lemasters highlighted the example of the municipal water park in Wichita Falls, Texas, that his company manages through an operating agreement with that city. According to Lemasters, The park, open for six years, operates at a profit based on general admission prices of $21.99 and junior admission of $17.99. In total, he said group discounts and other special admission prices brings the overage ticket price for a visitor to the park down to $17.51 last year, a year that saw about 90,000 visitors (revenues of $1.576 million).
By comparison, a 2010 feasibility study showed a projected fee schedule of only $5 for individuals 5 or older and $2 for age 4 and under, only yielding $709,300 in revenues during the facility's first year of operation. As a result, the aquatics center would post a loss of $113,472 based on the feasibility study.
Due to the success of Wichita Falls' park and based on his expertise, Lemasters said the facility should charge a higher fee similar to that of the Texas municipal water park.
"I think you're set. You're ready to go (with design). Now you start to do the operational things, and you do need to do that," he said. Decide your pricing, what's going to be the promotion and marketing of it, food and beverage. There will be a lot of things you need to do. Some cities look at a water park as a service, some look at it as a profit center. You need to decide what's your goal."
Sebastian County Judge David Hudson told the two government bodies that once final design work is done within the next 10 weeks, he would then be able to begin work on an updated feasibility study correctly detailing operating expenses, admissions prices and expected revenues based on the new design.
"Once the final design is set, then the study will be updated and you'll have that information. Then we'll continue to work jointly. The city and county will continue to work jointly through all these next steps and then thereafter, we will continue to meet with you."