Officials say Rogers Aquatic Center exceeds expectations in first two years

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 582 views 

The pools have been drained and the patrons have long gone home, but officials with the Rogers Aquatic Center said operations in its first two years have exceeded expectations.

“We logged 110,000 park visits this past summer, which is on par with our opening year and we had 15 fewer operating days in the 2014 season. You know we (area school districts) had 13 make-up days from the snowy winter and we lost two days in June to thunderstorms,” said Barney Hayes, director of the Rogers Parks Department.

Hayes said the $12.9 million aquatic center generated $1 million in gross revenue in each of its first two years of operation. He said this pales in comparison to the $26,000 in annual gross receipts the city had from the old Lake Atalanta pool, which was the site for swimming lessons in the city.

“Our swimming instruction revenue alone was $30,000 this past year and we had 15 lost days,” Hayes said.

The park operates on an annual budget of $500,000, most of which covers a $300,000 payroll, Hayes said. The park employs about 120 workers, most of them seasonal lifeguards with a few maintenance and concession stand workers in the mix. 

The aquatic center has two full-time employees a manager and an assistant. Pool chemicals cost roughly $60,000, while liability insurance, water and electricity run about $140,000 a year.

The city spent nearly $13 million constructing the 3-acre water park, money earmarked from a $26.8 million bond issue in 2011. The rest of the bond revenue went to the construction of new ball fields which allow the city to host more competitive softball and baseball tournaments throughout the spring, summer and fall. 

The aquatics park was designed to be self-sustainable from year one and set pricing at $12 for residents and $15 for nonresidents. After some initial flack from patrons on the pricing, the city negotiated a special 10-Punch Splash Pass at half price at the start of the season which reduced the cost down to about $4.25 for residents and $4.75 for nonresidents. The 10-punch pass regular price breaks down to a 52% discount for nonresidents and a 40% discount for Rogers residents. Group prices and after-hour party rates are also given. Based on the $1 million of gross revenue, excluding food concession revenue, patrons on average are paying around $8 per person.

Hayes said the $12 regular price offered value over the typical $35 ticket cost for White Water in Branson – not including the extra gas money.

“I understand the new water park opening in Fort Smith in 2015 has set ticket prices at $15 and they are expecting to have around a $1.3 million annual operating budget. We feel good about our ticket prices and our half-million dollar operating costs,” Hayes said.

The Rogers Aquatic Center also offers a picnic area outside the park where families wanting to save on food can enjoy a sandwich from home. Hayes said concession stand prices are also reasonable and “are no where near movie theater or theme park costs.”

He said being self-sustainable is a key goal of the aquatics center With an 11-week operational schedule there is limited time to earn the money needed to break even each year.

“We are very pleased with the park, the profit levels, traffic patterns and overall operations in our first two years,” Hayes said.

He said from year-one to year-two the Rogers Aquatic Center added a fence around the Lazy River water feature to provide an additional level of safety. They also purchased an additional 100 lounge chairs after having underestimated the original need.

“We also added more parking based on the size of crowds coming to the park. We made these adjustments out of revenues generated in the first year,” Hayes said.

The park also added more lifeguards for year-two increasing the count from around 70 to 100, most of which worked 20 hours a week. The chemicals, water and electricity usage were comparable in both years of operations an on par with the budget.

Suzy Turek, manager for the aquatics center, said they also instituted a volunteer junior lifeguard program this past year which has been popular with tweens and their parents. 

“They are Red Cross certified but too young to work. They volunteer in the park providing extra eyes and ears to the employed life guards,” Turek said. “We plan to expand that program in 2015.”

She said it quickly became evident that the park needed more concession stands, so they added a small stand ahead of year two and have planned to expand again in 2015. One other area the park is looking to improve is with features for the non-swimmers.

“We want everyone who comes to the park to have a unique experience and that included the nonswimmers.” Turek said.

Mayor Greg Hines said the aquatics park and ball fields that comprised the $26.5 million bond issue are investments in “quality of life” that will have enduring benefits to the city long-term.

During a recent mayoral forum Hines said the city continues to invest in “quality of life” assets because of their importance in attracting talent to the region. He said aside from helping to generate tourism dollars, trail systems and parks are a key element in ensuring the region can attract and retain enough talent to ensure employers stay open and have room for growth. Hines said there is a strong correlation between population growth and “quality of life” assets within a community.

That’s why, he said, the city spent $15 million on improvements to Lake Atalanta and a 100-acre park near downtown. He said the city is now using these prior investments as leverage to help attract more investors to the downtown region.