Recipe for Success

An overview of common mistakes, timelines, and where to start when building a municipal aquatic center

By Scot Hunsaker and Kevin Post | 2007
Splash and Spray

Today, more than ever, building a municipal aquatic center for a new or existing facility requires a due diligence process. The key difference in the public sector versus private sector is consensus building through community outreach. If not properly completed, citizens may withdraw support if the program is not relevant to their desires and affordability. It is essential that the community be included when showcasing potential new facilities, the proposed program mix, and activity menus as they develop. Whereas private aquatic development is often controlled by a few people with financial performance being the primary driver, the public sector aquatic development must not only be sustainable it must standup to public scrutiny.


Common solutions include repairing, replacing or renovating. Renovation adds programming value but may not be a good value with limited life. Municipalities sometimes replace the old pool with a brand new pool of the exact same size and configuration “because the old one already costs too much to operate.” But the old pool is more than likely experiencing a leaking pool shell, outdated filtration, and lack of recreation amenities, causing high maintenance costs coupled with fewer swimmers. The obsolete pool not only might be a compromise to the environment and swimmers (wasting water, improperly filtering water, etc.) but also the budget. Replacing or repairing the same flat water pool might be less expensive, but the same ingredients may not stir the community into using it more and being fiscally sustainable.

Another common mistake is timing decisions, either the urge to rush into building without the due diligence of gaining community consensus, or waiting too long due to indecisive feelings regarding the targeted (mistargeted?) solution. The longer the waiting period, the more it’s going to cost due to delays and changing expectations. Lack of timely decisions may result in getting off track with council leadership changes and other key staff turnover, delaying site selection(s) and even more design dilemmas. It’s best to have a committee representing the community to make these important decisions using careful research while recommending proposals backed by clear and accurate information.

For the recreation professional, leading and facilitating a feasibility study is well worth the time and effort. Design decisions made today will likely last 50 years to come. Consequently, it’s best to build realistic expectations by testing the appetite of the community. Unlike an aquatic developer who looks at the number of homes in a market area, municipal facilities must look at community consensus and public funding, making sure the facility will be sustainable with inclusive programming. Breaking it down, a typical timing schedule includes feasibility, funding, design, construction and operations.

STEP 1: Feasibility

The best place to start is to appoint an internal aquatic project team. The team, sometimes referred to as the steering committee, is relied on for decision making protocol. The committee is usually made up of local political leadership, the park director, other recreational professionals, community residents, aquatic staff, swim coaches, school representatives and other interested parties.

A professional consulting team works with the steering committee in preparing the feasibility study. From commencement of the study process to the decision to go to referendum (or council vote) takes about 120-160 days. The teams work together to develop a clear mission statement using a common vocabulary that keeps everyone on track. The mission may include aquatic training, lessons, therapy, and/or recreation benefits as its goal to the city. As obvious as this should be, it can take several tries to exactly state the varied mission to its diverse audience.

Identifying relevant needs through community outreach includes focus groups, stakeholder interviews and sometimes resident surveys. Surveys gauge potential customers’ inclinations, how much of the market you could or should be attracting, and shows the community that you care about what they think. Focus groups, conducted in real time, reveal residents’ tastes, even prompting unanticipated paths, which can be a smorgasbord of invaluable knowledge. Community outreach certainly takes time, but community buy-in is crucial; although often the community already desires trends they see in peer communities.

The municipality might look at peer communities to gain insight in idea generation for structure and an outline for operations. Looking at methods of other facilities is helpful in early decision making; however, other facilities’ numbers may appear off budget. Kind of like looking at your next door neighbor’s grocery shopping budget – he might have more children than you or his kids might be older than yours, perhaps the mother-in-law lives with him, they might be more adventurous in their eating habits, or more health conscious. So, too, these general estimates from neighboring communities should not be relied on for business decisions due to many variables: higher population density, fewer children under 18, more seniors, higher income, fewer aquatic competitors, etc. A city’s study must look at its own local reality when detailing line item budgeting, determining area fee affordability and tailored programming analyses for the proposed facility at its specific location. Again, this requires intense research by evaluating existing area providers, population characteristics, area construction costs, vendor rate variance, utility costs, climate, and many other variables.

The study may then develops three options to meet community needs sensitive to the city’s budget: Dream, Reality, and Fall Back. Each concept includes project costs and operation analysis. The Dream facility entails desired features and components from the community and steering committee. Sometimes the Dream facility is built through grants, donations and pledges from generous residents and local businesses, knowing the Dream facility will generate revenue while increasing the community profile. The Reality concept pulls back a notch when all the bells and whistles of the Dream facility seem to be an out of reach hurdle, although often the hurdle is operations and not capital costs. The Fall Back model may include phasing where the city adds an exciting feature each year, keeping families excited and memberships high.

STEP 2: Funding

Once the concepts are confirmed by the city, the study goes on to match need with political and financial realities by defining funding options. With an opinion of revenue potential and an estimate of operating expenses that subsequently determine cash flow and debt, funding opportunities are across the board same as the differences in construction costs throughout the nation. Funding might include a school district, YMCA or a hospital partnership. It might be the sale of bonds, operating leases, and many other creative means such as private contributions.

When all the information is determined to proceed with a knowledgeable decision, the steering committee must decide how to implement strategy. While most feasibility studies go to design, it can take two to three years from the decision to go to referendum to actual referendum, while other times it may take a simple vote from city council. If going to referendum, three keys for success are community participation, doing your homework, and getting out the vote.

STEP 3: Design and Construction

Once the referendum is approved by the voters, it’s time to hire a professional design team with project type experience. The design process includes schematic design, design development, construction documents, bid, and construction. This can take anywhere from six to 12 months where the climate is temperate, nine to 15 months where the weather is seasonal, and one to two years for an indoor aquatic center to be built.

STEP 4: Operations

Operations include three operating models: subsidy, breakeven, and positive cash flow. Subsidy uses tax dollars to pay operating expenses while the breakeven model is able to pay its own operating expenses. Positive cash flow is the facility that is able to pay its own operating expenses and build revenue. While older facilities are typically subsidized due to higher costs of maintenance and fewer swimmers, a sustainable model is the norm for new facilities, with fiscal operations driven by programming revenue.

When operating an aquatic center, implementation of a thorough marketing plan that includes the mission is vital. Relevant programs with details stating exactly what the program does must be conveyed so that participants are satisfied and become loyal users of the facility.

Developing the unique recipe of success for each community is the key to a great project. As the public perceives the facility, so too will it be used this way. Facility expectations are judged from the moment the public enters the gate. Professional presentation in the friendly, fun, clean, but controlled atmosphere must constantly be examined and carried out by management in its policy.

Creating an economic engine to support the vision will provide a fiscally sustainable enterprise including water, features, and programs in concert with the community for many years to come. While the taste buds of the investor may focus success around financial performance, the municipal developer has a more complex palette that blend the flavors of cost, recreation amenities, programs and community needs.