PEORIA — As recently as two years ago, the Peoria area had four sizeable outdoor water park options available for the public to cool off during summer months. This year, just one remains.
Following the 2017 season, two of them — Splashdown at Eastside Centre in East Peoria and Lakeview Family Aquatic Center in Peoria — were closed permanently. In May of this year, the third facility — DragonLand Water Park at Mineral Springs Park in Pekin — was closed for the season when the 27-year-old pumps gave out for good, though the pool itself remains open. And days of operation have been cut at John Gwynn Family Aquatic Center in Peoria.
The Pekin Park District is gathering bids approximating more than $500,000 for a new mechanical system to open Dragonland for next year. But the fact remains that large water parks — and swimming pools in general — are a money-losing proposition for municipalities in central Illinois.
“The appeal of a public swimming pool is not what it used to be,” said Peoria Park District executive director Emily Cahill. “Our participation numbers have continued to decline as people get their own pools or go to private facilities.”
Cahill said many park districts are moving away from the expense of public swimming pools and toward lower-cost, zero-depth splash pads, which provide a place to cool off without the need for lifeguards, chemicals and motors.
In East Peoria, there are no plans to replace Splashdown, which was dismantled last year after 21 seasons because of the need for major repairs. The pool at Eastside Centre was also permanently closed.
“Our water park ran at a seasonal deficit for the last 10 years, roughly losing $60,000 per year,” said Fon Du Lac Park District director Mike Johnson. “Overall, the residents of East Peoria feel that closing the water park was a fiscally responsible decision. They understand that there are other pools in the area, which has helped reduce the impact on our community. It should be noted that that vast majority of patrons using our facility were not from East Peoria.”
DragonLand, meanwhile, actually turned a profit in 2018.
When the pumps that operate the large slides failed last month, the Pekin Park District board voted to keep the pool open and pledged its commitment to go forward on replacing the mechanical system for the slides. The slides themselves are in good shape and are just in need of recoating and recoloring.
“It’s an important amenity to the community,” said Pekin Park District executive director Cameron Bettin. “Our staff and our board feel that way. There aren’t that many pools around. And we do really well with swim lessons and with rentals, especially when the slides are working.”
Still, Bettin acknowledged, at 27 years old, the facility is aging.
“It’s not going to last forever,” he said. “But there’s no reason it can’t be there for another 25 years serving the community. And it gives other communities who’ve lost their pool an opportunity to use it as well.”
Several other area pools also have benefited from the water woes in Peoria and East Peoria.
The Morton public pool achieved an all-time participation high in 2018. Pools at Washington, Chillicothe and Metamora also reported increases from the previous year.
But nobody in the area is doing well during this rainy, mostly cool spring and early summer. Since lightning, rain and temperatures below 70 degrees require automatic closures, most area pools have already been shut down for several days — either full days or parts of them.
“Weather is a huge factor to pools financially,” said Metamora pool manager Mike Brockhouse. “This summer we have not had great summer 'pool' weather and have had to close early many days. Some folks get upset when we close due to low attendance. But we have to consider how much money we are losing — salaries especially — when we stay open with low number of patrons.”
Metamora and Limestone Township in Bartonville are two area pools that have relied on fundraisers to keep their facilities open. Bartonville’s annual Pool Days carnival usually nets around $10,000 per year for repairs and maintenance.
“We are hoping that the repairs that were completed will provide at least another 8-10 years of life to our facility,” said Derek Roemer of Limestone Township.
Metamora’s pool faced a real crisis a few years ago and the community responded generously to a “Save the pool” fundraising campaign.
“The pool is a special place in our community and the fundraiser covered some major repairs to keep it open,” said Brockhouse. “I am happy to say that the pool is running very well. However, we know pools and equipment do not last forever. One major repair could strap our park district to the point that another fundraiser is needed.”
Fundraisers are more the predilection of smaller towns and don’t work so well in cities the size of Peoria. Even though the Peoria Park District saved $130,000 last year by closing Lakeview Aquatic Center, other cost-cutting measures aimed at the city’s water recreation facilities have been instituted as the park district strives to reduce its huge deficits.
The Lakeview indoor pool was also closed at the end of 2017. And open pool hours this season have been slashed at Peoria’s remaining three water establishments — John Gwynn Family Aquatic Center, Proctor Recreation Center and the RiverPlex indoor facility — largely because of a lifeguard shortage.
“We are two-thirds of the number of lifeguards we need for full operation at the three facilities,” Cahill said. “Cutting back hours has helped us manage expenses.”
With the state’s minimum wage increasing gradually to $15 an hour by 2025, pool operators trying to stay afloat face another big expense in the years ahead.
“Most of our staff is in that minimum wage category,” said Washington Park District executive director Brian Tibbs. “For the next few years, there will be some hard discussions coming up.”
That last comment applies to the future of area pools as a whole. Washington Park pool, for instance, is one of the oldest around as it nears 50 years old, Tibbs said.
“We haven’t done a major upgrade since 2005 and we’re trying to figure out how to get backup pumps in place,” he said. “If a pump fails, you close your doors. Then all those people who bought season passes are not happy. And understandably so.
“We value our outdoor pool. It’s one of the hundreds of things that make Washington what it is. But a break-even year (financially) is a good year.”
Even newer municipal pools, like Morton’s 10-year-old facility, have faced big maintenance costs. Morton Park District executive director Joel Dickerson said the pool’s pumps, motors and heaters have all been rebuilt.
Dickerson pointed to the passing of a recent pool bond referendum, however, as proof that the city’s pool is greatly desired.
“It’s not every day that our taxpayers approve a referendum to increase taxes regardless of the purpose,” he said. “It was a clear message that our residents value having a swimming facility in our community.”
Every town in the area values its public pool. Paying for it is something else.
“Aquatics are very expensive and our pool season is, at best, 10 weeks long,” Cahill said. “As our resources decline, it’s hard for us to justify the short season and the cost that goes with the operation. We are certainly not making money on our pools and we are subsidizing them with tax dollars. For park districts, it's a trend we're seeing across the country. Especially this part of the country.”
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at davereynolds2.