The $6 million Splash Zone Family Aquatic Center — the lone public pool in Springfield — has seen more than 340,000 visits since it opened 10 years ago.
The water park operated by National Trail Parks and Recreation District is a valuable resource, even though it’s run a deficit since opening, Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said.
“Our community needs a place that people can go to who can’t afford to join (a private club),” Copeland said. “That’s the great contribution.”
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National Trail has spent about $2.8 million running Splash Zone over the past 10 years, while generating about $2.2 million — meaning it has lost a total of about $580,000 since it opened. The district sets aside about $90,000 each year to cover the shortfall, Director Leann Castillo said.
“We feel that it’s a public service and we make sure there are funds available,” Castillo said. “If we didn’t have this, there would be no public pool in the city of Springfield.”
The new pool was one of the major pieces of the National Trail Parks and Recreation District’s 13-year, $17 million capital campaign that also included the $2.6 million Carleton Davidson Baseball Stadium and the $8.5 million NTPRD Chiller ice arena. Other improvements included the Veteran’s Park amphitheater, skate park on Mitchell Boulevard and upgrade at several smaller parks countywide.
“Overall it achieved what we set out to do to hopefully create a better quality of life for the citizens,” said local developer Tom Loftis, one of the leaders of the capital campaign.
The water park is a great attraction residents can bring their children to without having to go out of town, said Springfield resident Julie Ayars, who took younger children she was babysitting to the pool on Monday. It’s great for all ages, she said.
“It’s a great thing for Springfield to have,” Ayars said. “The prices are reasonable or you can buy a membership or pay as you go. It’s just great for kids.”
The Springfield Family Waterworks at 715 Bechtle Ave. was built in 1959. By the turn of the 21st century, it was already 40 years old.
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In 2000, the city, county and Clark County Park District programs merged to create National Trail and kick off the capital campaign.
The projects were paid for through a combination of private donations and public money, including a one-year, half-percent sales tax approved by county commissioners in 2001 that generated about $5.5 million. Private donors funded about $7.6 million of the project, while $3.2 million came from the city and another $700,000 from state agencies.
After the drawings for Splash Zone were shown to city commissioners, Copeland said it looked like a great deal.
“When they first talked about a swimming pool, I didn’t think it was going to be like this,” Copeland said.
The former Bechtle pool closed for the new water park on Eagle City Road. It saw more then 42,000 visits its first year — still an annual record.
Over the years, Copeland has heard multiple complaints about the location of the new swimming facility. Leaders initially hoped to place the pool on the south side of town, but the owner of the land of the proposed site wanted too much money for it, he said.
The city later decided to donate land near its water treatment facility for Splash Zone, he said.
“It was free,” Copeland said “It was basically a financial decision, but you can’t put it anywhere where it’s close to everybody. The vast majority of the people who want to use it can get to it.”
Overall, the capital campaign has proved valuable, Copeland said.
“It’s been a step forward for the community,” he said.
While Splash Zone has always run a deficit, Castillo said the water park is meant to be a public service. The numbers are largely measured by weather, she said.
Last year the pool had about 36,000 visits and lost about $10,000 — it’s best financial result since it opened.
“We only closed four days the entire summer,” she said.
As of Aug. 20 of this year, the pool has had about 30,000 visits, not including private parties or rentals, Castillo said. The numbers this summer and in other years have largely been affected by wet summers, she said.
Financial numbers for this year won’t be available until the end of September, Castillo said.
In 2007, the district spent about $308,000 to operate the water park. Last year it spent about $208,000, according to public records.
In order to save money, National Trail began contracting out its concession stand in 2015. The pool is also run more efficiently, Castillo said, including having employees who open and close the pool each year. The recreation district previously hired contractors to perform those duties in the past.
“That’s saving us a lot of money,” Castillo said. “We’re just trying to work hard to make sure we have a quality product to give to our community.”
After 10 years, the pool mostly hears positive reviews, Castillo said. Unlike regular public pools, it has multiple amenities, including water slides, a lazy river and a splash pad for younger children.
“It’s gotten better and better each year,” she said.
On Aug. 20, the pool saw more than 500 people attend during its limited, back-to-school hours.
“We’ve still had great attendance,” she said. “We still have people coming.”
The pool has added fitness classes in the past few years, which she said has been a huge hit.
“We have people who come in the morning and in the evening to water walk,” Castillo said. “They’re so excited about it. A lot of these people had never been to Splash Zone before.”
People from as far as Toledo have hosted birthday parties at the water park, she said.
“We’re very fortunate to have something like this in Clark County,” Castillo said.
Earlier this year, National Trail’s operating money from the city of Springfield was cut from about $900,000 to about $700,000. The money is unlikely to be restored to the recreation district’s budget, Castillo said.
Before a city income tax increase passed in May, National Trail faced losing more money in the future, which local leaders had said could have put Splash Zone’s future in jeopardy.
While the city provides money for NTPRD, the organization’s board has sole responsibility about whether or not the pool would close, Castillo said.
“Our board is very committed to making sure that we’re provide unique recreation services and they believe it’s a vital part of what we should be doing,” she said.
The recreation district typically spends about $200,000 annually to operate the water park, Castillo said, which includes salaries and retirement benefits — something for-profit pools aren’t required to pay.
“Time will tell,” if the city will be able to continue National Trail’s funding, the mayor said. The income tax increase will help the city get back on solid financial footing but he said cuts will still have to be made going forward.
The state also continues to cut local government funds, Copeland said.
“We have to continue to find ways to keep saving money but we should be OK for awhile,” he said.
Splash Zone’s last day for regular hours was Aug. 18 because the majority of its staff either goes back to high school or college, Castillo said.
However the pool has remained open for limited hours for fitness classes and other activities.
The water park has lots of different activities for children, said Champaign County resident Kayla Gingrey, who bought a family pass to Splash Zone this year.
She and her four children took one more dip in the pool on Monday before school began later in the week.
“We come here and they make new friends almost every time that we’re here,” Gingrey said. “They have a good variety at the concession stand. All the staff is really friendly and they keep a good eye on the kids so the parents can lay out.”
After attending more than 20 times this summer, she believes the family got its money’s worth.
“We have a pool in Urbana and it’s nothing like this,” she said. “We chose to get passes here instead. It’s definitely something for the kids to do. There’s not much for them to do and being able to come here is amazing.”
Tremont City resident Kathy Noyes is one of about 30 people who use Splash Zone for fitness classes in the morning. She participates in the water walking a few times per week and purchased a fitness pass to the water park.
“If the weather is good and I don’t have any other plans, I come here,” Noyes said. “It’s wonderful. It’s very refreshing.”
She previously attended the private Lakewood Swim and Athletic Club in Urbana, which closed in 2003. Splash Zone has been a welcome addition, she said.
“It’s definitely something that’s good for the community,” Noyes said.
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Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about the National Trail Parks and Recreation District and its financial concerns over the past 17 years, including recent stories on the NTPRD Chiller and the flooding at Carleton Davidson baseball stadium.
By The Numbers
$17 million: Cost of the National Trail Parks and Recreation District’s capital campaign, which included private and public dollars.
$6 million: Cost to build the Splash Zone Family Aquatic Center, which opened in 2007.
344,000: The estimated number of visits at the water park from 2007 through Aug. 20.