Fort Smith, Sebastian County officials hear pitch for $1.5 million water park expansion

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,071 views 

Richard Coleman, executive vice president-new product development with American Resort Management, discusses Parrot Island Water Park operations during an Oct. 18 joint meeting of the Fort Smith Board of Directors and Sebastian County Quorum Court.

Rising wear and tear is boosting expenses at the Parrot Island Water Park, and boredom with the same amenities is cutting into income and attendance, members of the Fort Smith Board of Directors and Sebastian County Quorum Court were told during a joint meeting Thursday night (Oct. 18).

Richard Coleman, executive vice president-new product development with American Resort Management (ARM), the company that manages the water park located within Ben Geren Regional Park in south Fort Smith, addressed the two bodies to give a report on finances, attendance, maintenance, and present a $1.5 million plan to expand the park.

Between 2015 and 2018, the water park has logged 296,006 visitors, produced total revenue of $5.289 million, had total expenses of $4.905 million, and posted net income of $383,570. But the net income fell 152% from $129,716 in 2017 to $51,369 in 2018. Coleman told members of the two governing bodies and city and county staff that maintenance costs are rising for the four-year old facility, which he said is consistent with the other water parks they manage.

“We are going on our fifth summer this next year, and it is starting to show some wear and tear,” Coleman said, adding that new paint in parts of the lazy river and wave pool resulted in a one-time $30,000 expense in 2018.

Costs are also rising for water chemicals, labor costs and insurance. Coleman said insurance was up around $8,000 in 2018, and labor costs are rising for the 120 seasonal employees. Also hurting 2018 revenue and income was weather. Coleman said the facility essentially lost three weekends in late August and early September because of rain. That resulted in up to $20,000 in income lost. Also, the summer had more high heat days, which often discourages parents from bringing their children to the park, he said.

The water park also posted a decline in attendance in 2018. Following are attendance and days open figures from ARM for the first four years.

Operating Days: 105
Visitors: 111,763

Operating Days: 97
Visitors: 99,127

Operating Days: 96
Visitors: 102,861

Operating Days: 96
Visitors: 96,670

Coleman said the 2015 operating days were higher because they tried to remain open later in the year, but that proved to be financially unsustainable.

The best way to boost attendance and profitability is to add new amenities every 3-5 years, Coleman said. People will say “we’ve been coming for four years straight. when is something new going to come down the pike?” Coleman told the audience of the common complaint they hear. He said the park will begin to “barely break even” if new amenities are not added. He also said a region the size of the Fort Smith metro can support annual water park attendance of between 120,000 and 130,000. He said the park needs to consistently hit around 100,000 annual visitors to be profitable.

The new amenity proposed by Coleman is replacing the yellow slide with a new tube slide and to install a flow rider, aka, surf machine. He said several options were considered, and these they believe are the best under the $1.5 million budget. He said the flow ride is popular on cruise ships, and will bring more teenagers and young adults to the park. Also, the new slide tube will use existing steel and existing plumbing, which serves to keep installation costs lower than normal.

Expanding with a flow rider will also allow a part of the park to remain open later in the night for teenagers and young adults, and would be the only location in a large area with a wave pool and flow rider. Another 250 chairs would be placed around the flow rider, providing “great entertainment” for parents and friends who will watch for hours, Coleman said.

Coleman said the expanded facilities could be open by June 2019 barring any unusual winter weather delays.

In response to questions from Quorum Court members and City Directors, Sebastian County Judge David Hudson praised ARM’s management of the park.

“I think they have done an outstanding job operating this and marketing this,” Hudson said, adding that no money has been needed from city or county operating funds for four consecutive years. “That’s a good situation.”

The city and county pitched in to pay for the almost $12 million cost of the existing park.

Hudson said the county has budgeted $750,000 for the $1.5 million expansion. The city of Fort Smith is expected to soon authorize $650,000 from the Parks Department to support the expansion, City Administrator Carl Geffken told Talk Business & Politics. The balance will come from a $180,000 reserve fund maintained by ARM.