On a summer day in 1994, longtime Florissant Mayor James Eagan was touring the Blanchette municipal water facility in St. Charles. This wasn't your typical rectangular swimming pool. Built in 1991 at a cost of $1.8 million, the St. Charles pool came with two "otter" slides, floating inner tubes, a cargo net to climb across and a zero-depth-entry kiddie area with hoses and valves and fountains and three "shade shelters" -- plus a 25-yard lap pool for competitive swimmers. The new Blanchette facility had opened to record crowds in 1992, thousands of callers had flooded the city's parks department with questions and visitors were trekking to St. Charles from across the metro area, including Florissant, to experience the novelty of the region's first municipal water park.
With his city's outdoor pool aging and in need of replacement, Eagan wanted to see firsthand what all the hubbub in St. Charles was about. He encountered some of his own residents while he was on the tour -- and they gave him an earful. "They gave him a lot of trouble. They wanted to know: 'Why don't we have one?'" remembers St. Charles parks director Richard Ash, who was giving Eagan the grand tour.
Eagan boomed out his response. "We're going to build one," he vowed. "But ours will be bigger, nicer and better!"
A year later, just as Eagan had promised, Florissant broke ground on its own water park, called the Koch Park Family Aquatic Center. The North County city used the same firm that designed the Blanchette pool, but Florissant's cost $500,000 more, and it had more bells and whistles: an 880-foot-long lazy river to float along in inner tubes -- the longest in the St. Louis area -- as well as an enclosed noodle-shaped slide that emptied into a "plunge" pool. Eagan, who died last year, proudly described the aquatic center as the "crown jewel of the Florissant parks system."
In the decade since St. Charles became the first city in the region to transform its city swimming pool into a water playground, huge multimillion-dollar aquatic parks have sprouted around the St. Louis suburban area. St. Charles now has three outdoor water parks. Webster Groves has one, as do Kirkwood, Maryland Heights, Chesterfield, Shrewsbury and O'Fallon, Mo. St. Peters has an indoor water park at the Rec-Plex, the first mega-recreation center in the region, but now so do Ballwin, Clayton and Richmond Heights. Fenton has indoor and outdoor aquatic facilities. Des Peres is planning an indoor/outdoor water park, and outdoor ones are planned or in the works in Manchester, Crestwood, Maplewood, Ballwin and Bridgeton.
Taken together, the tab for these water parks and recreation centers in the St. Louis area will hit nearly $150 million.
Though the Midwest hardly seems the place for trendsetters, the St. Louis area has become a sort of ground zero in an aquatic explosion that is slowly rumbling nationwide -- and more than 100 parks directors, city managers and elected officials from across the country will come here in August to attend a training school for people interested in building and operating similar municipal aquatic and recreational palaces. In 2000, its first year, the training school drew people from 18 states, including both coasts and Alaska.
Colorado has hosted such a design school for 15 years, with more than two dozen pools and aquatic facilities to visit, including indoor leisure pools and outdoor wave pools. "We've actually gotten to the point where we have too many sites -- we have to drop some of them off the list," says Cindy Shewmake, committee chair for Colorado's Recreation Facility Design and Management School. She attributes the building boom in Colorado to its sunny weather, growing population and active, recreation-oriented residents. But now it is facing competition from -- Missouri? That has Shewmake perplexed. "I don't know why that is," she says. "I don't know why it would be happening in Missouri."
The aquatic parks and recreation centers are so popular here that voters in several cities have approved large tax increases to build them while turning down more money for their public schools.
Dave Ostlund, executive director of the Missouri Park and Recreation Association, says a half-cent sales tax, authorized by the Legislature in the mid-1990s for local parks and stormwater improvements, is one factor that has St. Louis "leading the nation in terms of this type of development." The sales-tax legislation, which gave the state's municipalities a way to fund these expensive recreation projects, "was the most important development for parks and recreation in Missouri in 25 years," he says. Unlike a property tax, which only directly affects a community's homeowners and businesses, a sales tax hits everybody who shops there. That means nonresidents help foot the bill for recreational facilities they may, in some cases, never use. "Richmond Heights [home of the St. Louis Galleria shopping center] campaigned on that," Ostlund says, estimating the amount of local sales taxes generated there by nonresidents at about 90 percent. "So if their community center cost $15 million, they really probably got one for $1.5 million," Ostlund says. "People figure, 'As long as we're paying for community centers all over the metro area, we might as well do it in our city, too.'"
But it's not just the sales tax that's driving the construction of these new facilities; it's also a case of good old-fashioned municipal one-upmanship. "There's definitely a 'keeping up with the Joneses' aspect to it," Ostlund says.
Terry Jones, a political-science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and an expert on the region's fractured governments, says this latest fad is really nothing new for the middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs of St. Louis. The poorer municipalities can't afford such amenities, and the residents of wealthier ones -- Ladue, for instance -- tend to join private clubs. "One of the things they have historically done is to purchase recreation collectively," Jones says. "It makes a lot of sense in those municipalities that have a lot of children to do this as a group. Whatever happens to be the latest recreation craze -- hockey rinks 15 years ago was the 'in' thing to do -- and swimming pools, indoor and outdoor, have been a perennially popular item."
And in St. Louis County, where the population of approximately 1 million has remained steady for some 30 years, cities are constantly competing against one another to make their residential properties more desirable and increase their value. Building a megapool is one way to do that, Jones says: "If one municipality is offering a wider and broader array of recreational opportunities, by God, then we've got to offer those too, or else. We've set up a very competitive environment in St. Louis County. This is one way in which they respond in that environment."
Nowadays, cities aren't just building their own cookie-cutter aquatic and recreation centers, they're demanding that they reflect a community's flavor. They're bragging about them. They're giving them names such as "The Point," "The Heights," "RiverChase," "Aquaport." In St. Charles, the Blanchette pool was intended to reflect the area's French history; in Kirkwood, the design was supposed to be in keeping with the city's train theme, with a snack bar shaped like a railroad car and the name Recreation Station. In Crestwood, officials want to forego generic landscape pavers and opt for natural stone to reflect the new aquatic center's location in Whitecliff Park, near what was once an old quarry.
"Often there is a desire to have something bigger, better, different. Nobody wants to be like the other guy," says David Markey, whose Atlanta-based engineering firm, Markey & Associates, designed more than a half-dozen municipal aquatic centers in the St. Louis area. "They want something that matches their perception of their community. And better is in the eye of the beholder."
For some cities, building a recreational facility can be about shaping an identity. The city of Fenton built a huge center, RiverChase, that opened in 1999 with an indoor leisure pool with attached lap lanes, plus an outdoor aquatic facility with a competition-size pool. The 71,000-square-foot facility also includes two basketball courts, a fitness facility with an indoor track, a game room, preschool rooms, children's rooms, a multipurpose room, three meeting rooms and a birthday-party room by the pool. All this -- at a cost of $13.5 million -- for a city with just 4,300 residents.
Mary Jo Dessieux, Fenton director of parks and recreation, says the facility was designed to draw users from the surrounding unincorporated area's 40,000 residents. And it has been a source of pride for the city, she says. "We're known all over," Dessieux says. "All the other parks-and-recreation departments know it. You can see us from Highway 44, directly across from Chrysler. It lights up at night -- I can see it when I'm coming westbound on 44 at Geyer. I can see it on 270, but I have to look really fast. I can see it from Big Bend and Highway 141," Dessieux says. "It's a great facility."
Scot Hunsaker, president of Counsilman/Hunsaker & Associates, a St. Louis engineering firm with a national practice specializing in aquatics, says building super-duper pleasure palaces is all part of increasing competition to be seen as an attractive community. His company has designed pools across the country, as well as in Rolla, Columbia and Farmington. In the St. Louis area, his company has designed the pools in Fenton and Chesterfield and at the St. Peters Rec-Plex, among others.
"The city of Fenton made a major statement with its location on 44. It had been referred to more as a working community than as a great place to live. They used that facility as a strong statement to the surrounding area: 'Not only is Fenton a great place to work, but it's a great place to live.'"
Maryland Heights firmly believes bigger is better. When Maryland Heights' Aquaport opened in June 1998 at a cost of $4.8 million, the city hoped it would draw people from all over the county, and it did, including residents from the city of St. Louis and Illinois and as far south as Jefferson County. It helped that the Aquaport's slides were easily visible from Interstate 270. "The first year, it was just unbelievable," says Kim Hedgpeth, assistant director of parks and recreation. "Our daily averages were well over 1,000 people."
Other parks have been built since then, but, for the most part, Hedgpeth says Aquaport is unmatched, given its 8,000-square-foot "family-fun pool" and five slides, including a 160-foot "wild rapids" slide, an enclosed tube slide, an open flume and side-by-side racer slides, as well as a 740-foot-long lazy river. "I think the only one right now competitive with Maryland Heights' is Kirkwood's," she says. "I think Maryland Heights' has a really wonderful aspect, which is our natural terrain. You don't have to climb towers to go down our slides -- we built them into the side of the hill. It lends itself to a very neat appearance."
"When it first opened, I think that it was largely regarded in the recreational community as one of the nicest ones around, and I still think that's true," says Maryland Heights Mayor Michael O'Brien. "We're just tickled to death with the thing."
Some facilities seem to be driven, at least partly, by what exists in neighboring communities and longstanding rivalries between them. Take Kirkwood and Webster Groves.
Webster Groves was one of the first cities to build an aquatic center, which came as part of a grassroots effort to improve the community center with a year-round indoor ice rink. As the momentum for the ice rink built, says Mike Opperman, director of Webster Groves Parks, Recreation and Community Development, so did a push for a new pool to replace the 47-year-old one. The total project ended up costing $9.1 million, including a $2.2 million pool.
The new aquatic center had a wading pool with a wet playground; two slides, one of them an enclosed tube slide; a 200-foot-long lazy river; a raindrop umbrella; and zero-depth beach entry, where little ones can toddle in just a few inches of water. The facility's first full year was 1995. "It was a classic case of 'Build it, and they will come,'" Opperman says. "To be honest, we didn't have to do a whole lot of marketing, there was so much excitement and positive feedback. It was so new and so different from what people had seen before." But this aquatic facility wasn't open to just anyone. Only Webster's 23,000 residents could use it -- or guests they brought along with them.
It wasn't long before residents in nearby Kirkwood noticed -- but they couldn't get in unless they finagled a visit with friends in Webster Groves. Kirkwood had a 70-year-old pool in an out-of-the-way location on the edge of the city, and by 1996, the city was surveying residents on whether they wanted a new pool. By 1998, voters in Kirkwood had approved a sales tax for parks, and, in June 1999, the Recreation Station opened its doors. It, too, was exclusive. Only residents of Kirkwood, as well as the cities of Glendale and Oakland -- which pitched in to help with the $5.5 million cost -- could get in the doors, though they could bring a limited number of guests. "We did not want an overcrowded facility," says Kirkwood parks director David White.
And Kirkwood's aquatic complex had a train theme, a longer lazy river, and gadgets and gizmos that Webster's did not.
This time, though, it was residents of neighboring Des Peres who were shut out, even though that city first conducted a feasibility study back in 1996.
"When we opened," White says, "we got a lot of calls from [Des Peres] parents whose kids go to the [Kirkwood] school district. We were, like, 'You can go with a buddy who lives in Kirkwood, Glendale or Oakland,' and I think that was disappointing to people who lived in Des Peres."
But that city of 8,500 residents is now jumping on the bandwagon. Des Peres is planning a 74,000-square-foot recreation facility that threatens, in many ways, to outdo Kirkwood's. Estimated to cost between $13 million and $16 million, it will have a gym and fitness center, jogging track, meeting rooms and babysitting facilities. It is slated to have an indoor wave pool -- something neither Kirkwood nor Webster has -- as well as an indoor slide with a splashdown pool, a spa whirlpool and a toddler pool, plus an outdoor leisure pool with a lazy river, slides and a play area.
"Nobody else has a wave pool, so that's one of our unique features," says Susan Trautman, Des Peres director of parks and recreation. "The best advantage I have is being one of the later facilities to come online. I can see the mistakes that were made in the others, ones that the general public wouldn't see, and know how to improve it."
Many smaller cites refuse to be left out.
Crestwood begins work on an $8 million project in August, Manchester is planning a $4 million aquatic center, and even Maplewood, with a population of about 9,500, has gotten in on the act with plans for a $5.5 million family aquatic center -- even though nearby neighbors Richmond Heights and Clayton recently opened expensive new facilities. Richmond Heights' $14.1 million rec center is open to nonresidents; Clayton's $20 million facility, with its four basketball courts, climbing wall, running tracks, and leisure and competition pools, was restricted to residents until February, when the city's Board of Aldermen changed the policy. "So many people were coming through the door wanting to come in, and it seemed like we could handle the added usage," says Patty DeForrest, Clayton's aquatics supervisor.
Maplewood's facility will be less ambitious than Richmond Heights' or Clayton's, but city officials still want to make sure it's competitive. Maplewood's family aquatic pool will include slides and play features, a toddler pool and a 50-meter lap pool, plus two diving boards and a "drop slide" that ends about 3 feet above the water. "There is still a strong demand here for a plain rectangular pool that has some depth to it, but we want to make it so it is more of a family-style pool like Webster's and Kirkwood's and Crestwood's. To stay competitive, you need to put those kind of features that people of the '90s and the year 2000 want to see. And that is slides and zero-depth entry and some playground features," says Tom Grellner, Maplewood parks and recreation director.
Grellner says there is "always the competition between cities and parks districts, but you've got to keep in mind that what you're trying to do is serve your population and not get too caught up in keeping up with the Joneses." Still, that city has sought out a pool designer from Wisconsin that other cities have not used: "We wanted to be a little bit different," he says.
Former Maplewood Mayor Jane Moeller, who left office in April after eight years as mayor, says her city's officials "just want to keep up with the times. We want some of those slides and mushrooms with water dripping down on them. Some people go to a pool and actually swim, and they need the 50-meter pool, but some of us like to sunbathe. I think it's just great."
Moeller says Maplewood's pool will be more subdued than a huge facility such as the St. Peters Rec-Plex. "It won't be like that," she says, "but we don't need that."
Ten years ago, when the current building frenzy took off with the Blanchette facility, indoor aquatic facilities were already the rage in Europe, with amenities such as saunas and whirlpools and slides and fountains and play equipment. Not only did they replace archaic "square ponds," the new types of facilities often made money or broke even, unlike the traditional city pools. Residents of St. Charles were surveyed on what they wanted. Ash, the St. Charles parks director, says that although respondents were interested in slides and fountains and kiddie equipment, they were more likely to express a preference for the old-fashioned pools with diving boards. The city decided to keep a lap pool and diving area at Blanchette but to also build a zero-depth-entry pool with slides. Voters in 1991 approved a property tax to pay for it. At the same time, the city began work to update its McNair pool in a similar way, though on a smaller scale. The pools were so popular that, in 1996, St. Charles built a third pool, at a cost of $3.2 million, that was bigger and better, with such splashy features as a "dark ride," in which an inner tube slides underground, from darkness to daylight.
In nearby St. Peters, officials had set another standard for indoor recreation when they decided to build the $16 million Rec-Plex, which opened in 1994. Originally slated to cost $11 million, it was expanded when the Olympic Festival was awarded to St. Louis and the region needed a venue with a 50-meter lap pool and diving platform, along with adequate seating for spectators. The Rec-Plex marked a first for the St. Louis area, with amenities including a zero-depth-entry indoor leisure pool with a water slide, a lazy river and a swirling-vortex pool (often referred to as the "toilet bowl"). It also has two ice arenas, one indoor and one covered but outdoors, as well as a double-sized gym with an elevated walking track, a rock-climbing wall, a fitness center, babysitting services and a 6,000-square-foot food court serving such treats as hamburgers, hotdogs, pizza and ice cream.
Jeff King, recreation director for St. Peters, says the Rec-Plex started a wave of recreation-center building as people in other communities, perhaps for the first time, began to realize what they were missing: "Once the Rec-Plex was built, shortly thereafter Ballwin and Webster, other communities, started saying, 'What's unique about Ballwin, Webster Groves and St. Peters? Why can't we have those facilities in our community?' Then we saw another generation with Fenton, Clayton and Richmond Heights, and so now there is another generation being planned, like in Des Peres. It kind of perpetuates itself, and we're even seeing these facilities pop up outside the St. Louis area as well -- Ste. Genevieve, Perryville, Columbia, Rolla."
And King says such grand facilities can nurture a community's pride. "I know the city of St. Peters is tremendously proud of the Rec-Plex," he says, "and if you ask people -- this has been validated in surveys -- what they're most proud of in the city, Rec-Plex is always at the top of that list. Ballwin actually has pockets of unincorporated areas volunteering for annexation because of The Point. And you see it in subtle ways, during the holidays, when residents are entertaining relatives, you see a lot of them bringing in their relatives to show the place off."
But many parks directors refuse to concede that any sort of one-upmanship is at work, and the Rec-Plex still stands as the largest such indoor facility in the region. "I don't think there is a competition to build bigger and better," says Don Schmidt, Florissant's superintendent of recreation. "I do think there is a competition among municipalities to provide these services to their residents: 'They have that, why can't we get something like that?' Every municipality has its own idiosyncrasies. It's a question of trying to keep pace with providing services that are attractive to their residents."
It hasn't worked everywhere. There remains a long list of have-nots, especially among the smallest and poorest municipalities in North St. Louis County. And in some places, getting a snazzy new pool has been a tough sell.
Whereas Florissant has an aquatic park, an indoor pool, a community center and a golf course, neighboring Ferguson has struggled to sell voters on its own community center, including a state-of-the-art indoor aquatic center and gymnasium. Twice, voters have rejected the idea; the second time, the vote fell a few hundred shy of what was required. Ferguson Mayor Steve Wegert firmly believes a new recreation complex is something the city needs. "We're in competition with the new suburbs. Ferguson has its own charms, but you are comparing apples against oranges, newer versus older. These water parks are an amenity we're hearing more and more people want to have in their community. They want places where they can gather, a place to swim and play and recreate, and that's an area where our facilities are behind the curve."
The first time the proposal went to voters, the community center was to be funded by a combination of a property-tax increase and a half-cent sales tax for parks. The second time, Wegert says, it was to be funded solely by a property-tax increase, because several businesses said the sales-tax increase would put them at a competitive disadvantage. Both attempts failed. "It was a hard sell for many in the community," he says. "I have to attribute it to a large population of folks on a fixed income, and they're very cautious of any increase in taxes." Still, he expects the measure will go to the voters a third time: "Looking at the numbers, it wasn't beaten soundly. The numbers were strong. That tells me the interest is there."
The biggest of the have-nots in the metro area, cash-strapped St. Louis, is also trying to get into the indoor-leisure-pool business, but finding that money is a big issue. St. Louis has three outdoor pools and five indoor ones, but none compares with The Point, the Rec-Plex or RiverChase. The city is considering building some type of indoor leisure pool in conjunction with the federally funded Hope VI project at the old Darst-Webbe housing-project site, which includes plans to build a new recreation center. But it all depends on whether the city can come up with enough funding, says Dan Skillman, the city's commissioner of parks.
"They do require considerably more staffing and maintenance than your typical swimming pool, and all of our facilities are free of charge, so we don't really have the revenue stream the other municipalities have to offset the additional cost to operate these," Skillman says. Daily admission fees -- usually around $3-$5 for residents -- pay the lion's share of the operating costs at other municipal water parks, but in the city of St. Louis, the Board of Aldermen has passed a resolution pledging that all the city's recreational facilities will be open and free to the public.
"We would love to get into that business, but, again, it is getting over building something with that cost and allowing the public to enter and use it for free," Skillman says.
Jones, the political scientist, says cities generally don't take on these types of projects until after calculating how much they will cost them. "Usually, there's a lot of public support for this, up to and including raising the taxes to cover the costs," he says. "Most of the municipalities that do this sort of thing have arrived at their own balance of how much of the cost is picked up by every taxpayer and how much is picked up through user fees. The general rule of thumb is, all the taxpayers support the capital cost of the facilities. The marginal costs are passed on to the user."
For all their popularity, the new community centers and aquatic facilities have not been completely without controversy. There have been disputes with contractors, criticism from some residents and lingering concern that some facilities may turn into money pits. Richmond Heights' center opened more than 10 months behind schedule and more than $1 million over budget. There, the city fired its lead architect, David Mason and Associates, blaming the firm for a number of problems, including a design that placed a pool slide in the same spot as overhead ducts. The firm sued the city; the city countersued.
In Kirkwood, a group called Keep Kirkwood Green -- which supports more passive uses of greenspace in the city -- has raised questions about such things as the 1997 survey that led to the construction of the city's aquatic complex. The survey, for instance, found that 52 percent of respondents favored both an indoor pool and an outdoor family aquatic center and only 25 percent favored an outdoor family aquatic center with a pool, slides, sprays and playground equipment. City officials, however, went ahead with the outdoor family aquatic center, saying 77 percent of the people surveyed supported it. Some residents also opposed Kirkwood's sales-tax increase because it didn't include a sunset provision, meaning it will continue long after the new pool is paid off, says Kathy Paulsen, president of Keep Kirkwood Green.
"This is really one of those sensitive topics. People love it -- it's a great toy, and it's hard to be critical of it because of that," she says, describing attendance at the new aquatic center as phenomenal. "My kids are swimmers, so I'd be the last person to say I don't want a pool, but it wasn't the kind of pool I wanted. If we were going to spend $6 million, I thought they should have spent $3 million at the park and put in a nice pool with fewer bells and whistles and cooperated with the school district in using the other $3 million toward an indoor pool at the high school."
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.
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."