'World has changed' for public pools

CHAMPAIGN — Think of it as an arms — and legs — race.

Champaign opened the Sholem Aquatic Center in 2006 with a lazy river, dump buckets and all sorts of features not found at a traditional swimming pool.

Urbana, after closing its Crystal Lake Pool because of safety concerns in 2008, reopened a $9.1 million "family aquatic center" at the same site in 2013, complete with a climbing wall, flumes, a streambed, a sand play area and a sprayground.

Wednesday night (July 24), Champaign park board members are scheduled to vote on adding a water play feature for Sholem. If approved, it could be installed by the time the time the pool reopens next spring.

The new feature at Sholem has been planned for two years — long before the Crystal Lake Park pool reopened — but it's a sign that public pools aren't static facilities that can offer the same activities year after year.

"The world has changed from the time when we would go to the pool and just swim," said Vicki Mayes, executive director of the Urbana Park District.

At Sholem, Champaign Park District Executive Director Bobbie Herakovich said, the proposed features will replace a project that never got off the water.

"Last year the board had approved putting in lily pads and a rope system where you'd walk across the lily pads and hang onto a rope. We had a $50,000 anonymous donation and we're going to use part of that," she explained. "This is just a substitute for the lily pads we couldn't get done."

Meanwhile, an original feature at the shallow end of the pool with dump buckets and other attractions for young children will be replaced.

She described the planned feature as "more like a children's playground in the shallow end of the water, with three small slides and some climbing feature and water spurting out of these things that look like flowers."

You probably can expect occasional updates to both pools well into the future, the two park directors say.

"Each year we're going to have to be cognizant of the things we need to do to keep our pool — as well as Crystal Lake doing the same — in good working order and interest for the residents. We try to do things opposite of each other," said Herakovich. "Urbana did a good job of doing something different than we did. We had a much more limited budget than they had. We're doing what we can in our world.

"The good thing is you can use both pools and you can take turns with the kids."

Mayes said that in today's recreational environment "it's really important to maintain interest and excitement. So adding new features about every five years is a good management plan and one that I would recommend that we follow in Urbana as well."

Both Sholem and Crystal Lake are large enough to accommodate expansion, she noted.

"We've got a couple of things we found interesting that we think we would like to add. But the features just change so rapidly," Mayes said. "One of the things we were interested in was a wave-rider for teenagers, but it was a pretty high-ticket item. But it really would bring a lot of interest. It would cost a million dollars, although it wouldn't take up a lot of space. There's a wave that rides up a different slope with different waves. You can only have one person at a time on a boogie board, but there would be a lot of people standing around watching. For teenagers part of what they like to do is to be seen."

Herakovich said some Champaign park officials would like to add a diving well to Sholem, but the cost — also about a million dollars — might be prohibitive when there are so many competing demands.

"I don't know if we'll ever get to that million-dollar deep well. Our residents tell us that's what they would like to see the most," she said. "They also wanted more shade so we've been adding shade every year, and keeping the equipment updated."

But the park board also has to decide how to replace Spalding Pool, which was closed after the 2011 season.

"I think there's room in town for two pools. The question is whether there is room for three," Herakovich said. "And the Champaign park board will address whether they need to do something to replace Spalding. That's one of our goals for this year, to wait to see what the effect of Crystal Lake is."

Staff members, she said, favor moving more toward more water playgrounds like the facility at Hessel Park that has extended its hours this summer to 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

"We're going to put a splash pad in at Douglas Park. We have a grant application in for that," Herakovich said.

Spraygrounds are becoming more popular nationally, the parks directors said. Urbana will open one at the aquatics center in two weeks, said Mayes.

"I think the spraygrounds are fantastic, particularly if you already have a family aquatics center," she said. "They are low cost compared to a pool, they serve a high volume of users, generally families with younger children. They are low cost to build and operate and there are no lifeguards. You can open them early in the season, later in the season, even on a rainy day when the sun is expected to pop out."

The spraygrounds, unlike the pools, have no entry fee.

"We can keep it open until we have to start our winterization process, which is some time in October. As you know every time you send the kids back to school in September, the weather heats up," Herakovich said. "We think we can do several of those more affordably and hit different populations as well."

After a relatively cool and wet June, both pools have reported good attendance in July.

Mayes said Urbana's pool has exceeded revenue and attendance targets nearly every day since it opened July Fourth. Its capacity at any given time is 999 users; one day it reported 1,750 customers.

Herakovich said Sholem's attendance through July 21 was 42,690. That's down from 61,601 by the same date last year, but there's new competition and it's been a much cooler summer than last year. But twice this summer the pool had more than 2,000 users in one day.

Although there's still more than a month until the pools close, it's time for the traditional drop-off in pool attendance, the directors say.

"Late July is when summer baseball is over, most camps are over and people are scheduling their family vacations for late July or early August. You usually see a drop in attendance unless a heat wave comes on," Mayes said.

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