City to wade into aquatics park plan

The work session is open to the public and will be 4 p.m. Monday at the new Police Station, 54 E. Moore St.

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WALLA WALLA - A proposed $8.07 million aquatics park will be the topic of a special City Council work session on Monday.

Two of the issues surrounding the proposal are will voters say yes to raising property taxes to build the facility and, if built, would the facility generate enough money to operate in the black?

The answer to operating in the black depends on attendance and use fees.

According to city officials, the facility could one day be a water mecca for 400 children and 175 adults, who would pay $5 and $7 a day to slip, slide and splash all day.

Daily sales would also be the greatest source of revenue during the waterpark's 98-day season from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day.

Total revenues, including season passes, concessions, lessons and rentals, would be $460,050, according to numbers crunched by the Parks and Recreation Department.

The operating costs would be $333,942.

The remaining funds would be banked and used for maintenance and operation costs over the years, city officials said.

Future waterpark developer Mike Hillman warned, however, there are many factors that could make or break a Walla Walla waterpark.

"Looking at the scope and size of it (Walla Walla's design), they might just be throwing their money away if they are not careful," Hillman said.

He added he believes it would be a mistake for a municipality to try to compete with the larger private sector parks such as Splash Down in Spokane Valley.

Hillman explained that if the city of Walla Walla is trying to draw the older teen crowd, then it will need more than two slides.

Hillman said they would have to build something more like Shark Reef, a proposed waterpark he and another partner were ready to break ground on but had to put on hold until finances were secured.

"Basically, the only reason why we put it on hold is because a lot of banks are really hurting because of the recession," Hillman said.

The cost for Shark Reef will be $10 million.

That's about $2 million more than Walla Walla's proposal, but that price also includes the real estate and a lot more slides.

Shark Reef, which will be located in Kennewick, will have at least seven slides, a lazy river, wading pool, water bowl and non-water draws like a video arcade and drive-in theater, which brings another warning from Hillman.

"This is what baffles me. Our budget is roughly the same and we are putting a whole lot more for that ... And this is a common thing because government projects always cost more," Hillman said.

Hillman believes municipalities can't compete with larger private parks, and he doubts Walla Walla or any other municipal waterpark would sweep away any of his teenage and young adult clients.

"Going into this, one of my concerns, and we talked to a number of people on this, is we have these other municipalities around them, and should we consider them competition. And the unanimous answer was they are not competition," Hillman said.

But will Shark Reef nibble away at Walla Walla's numbers?

Hillman thinks it's possible. Though he added the projected 400 children and 175 adults per day is possible for the size of Walla Walla and its surrounding communities.

But Walla Walla might have another waterpark to contend with, as will Hillman.

Across the Columbia or Snake rivers, a group of Pasco developers known as Dynamic Waters LLC is getting ready to build Bahama Bay, which will include at least four slide towers, an interactive water play structure and a huge tipping bucket, according to its website.

Shark Reef and Bahama Bay would each serve up to 2,000 park users per day.

Hillman said the day use fee for Shark Reef would be around $16.

As for the other surrounding municipal aquatic structures in Pendleton, Hermiston and Moses Lake, Hillman said his studies show all are subsidized by city funds, so Walla Walla should expect to do the same.

Pendleton Family Aquatic Center Director Dave Byrd confirmed his facility relies on the city to backfill.

"I can tell you that the city does subsidize, though it varies," Byrd said.

Moses Lake Surf 'n Slide Recreation Director Tom Los said his park is solvent with one exception.

"We operate in the black, there was one year that we operated in the red since we opened since 1994," Los said.

Hillman disagreed, stating he studied Moses Lake's financials and said it is subsidized in various forms.

The Surf 'n Slide waterpark, however, is the largest of the three municipal waterparks, and includes an artificial surfing simulator, 300-foot lazy river, splash pad, two 200-foot water slides, a tube slide, a Baby Octopus slide, 1- and 3-meter diving boards and an Olympic size competition pool.

Could Walla Walla go as large as Moses Lake?

Hillman and Los doubt it because of the differences in county demographics.

Los said Surf 'n Slide draws heavily on tourists from King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, and sometimes even further, with other contributing attractions to the area including the lake, the sand dunes, rock climbing and concerts at the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Wash.

"We get kids from Canada that come down. And we are pulling in people from everywhere," Los said, but then added, "If you guys get the opportunity to build one, I would say do it."

The proposed Walla Walla waterpark would include two slides, a children's pool and play structure, a wave pool, a splash pad and a lazy river.

It does not include an outdoor Olympic competition pool, which has left Walla Walla Swim Club members floundering for support.

At a previous work session covering the waterpark proposal, parents and swim team members filled City Hall to ask that an Olympic pool be added to the proposed waterpark. Among Swim Club supporters was volunteer Gerald Giedeman, whose 15-year-old son swims on the team.

"I would say that if you were going to build an aquatics facility, you would need to build it for everyone," Giedeman said, noting that Pendleton, Hermiston and Moses Lake have Olympic pools in their waterparks.

As for paying for the $8.07 million proposal, Parks and Recreation officials are expected to ask City Council to approve asking voters to increase the property tax levy 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Only city resident would vote on and pay the increase, which would cost the owner of a $150,000 home an additional $75 per year in taxes.

One question that remains to be answered is would city residents pay less to use the facility than non-city residents.

In Moses Lake, city residents are given a discount for seasonal passes at Surf 'n Slide.

Similar aquatic park bond measures failed to gain a 60 percent super majority in 2003 and 2006; but a levy tax increase would require only a simple majority.

Levy increases can be voted on in either the August primary or November general election.

The Parks and Recreation presentation is open to the public and will be held at 4 p.m. Monday at the new Police Station, 54 E. Moore Street.

Public testimony is expected to be taken.

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