Pool cost jumps
Rec board struggles with new projected $4 million facility
By Tara DeRock Mahoney
Senior Staff Writer
Slim may have left town, but Morgan County Recreation Board officials are working hard to get him back. The group met last Thursday to talk about options for a proposed new 12-month competitive pool and mini water park. At issue, not surprisingly, is the proposed cost for the new complex—somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million, according to one contractor.
“The sticking point is that the county manager, the elected officials in this county have always been careful not to build things that they could not sustain,” said Bill Doran, a landscape architect working on the project who organized a recent feasibility study for the pool and water park. “And that's the question...if you build it, who will come? How viable is this park? And what are the minimum requirements needed to bring people to the park?”
The feasibility study seems to suggest that such a water complex may be more than sustained by residents of Morgan and surrounding counties. What the project may not be able to do is support any debt incurred by the project—it's possible that the project could generate enough revenue to pay down debt, but it is by no means definite. And that is a huge problem for the county officials.
“We got into the water park...to generate the revenue to support the pool,” said county manager Michael Lamar. “And if we're at a point where that's not going to happen, we've got to back off.”
“You can need and want everything in the world, but if you can't afford it, you can't build it,” agreed board member Alvin White.
Recreation board members seem united in their assertion that Morgan County needs a public pool, at least, and even if plans for a water complex do not come to fruition residents are likely to see a pool and bubble over the next year or so.
(“We'll see if we can get Slim back to town,” said Morgan County Recreation Director Bill Wood, referring tongue-in-cheek to recent reports in this paper that characterized the chance of getting a pool this year as “slim to none, and Slim just left town.”)
But if and when a mini water park might join the pool is debatable. The current proposal for the overall water complex is exciting, no one disputes that. A Junior Olympic-sized swimming pool, with an accompanying bubble, suitable for summer recreation and year-round lap and competitive swimming. A “lazy river” with rapids and smaller pools incorporated into its length. Two large water slides, as well as a 0”-18” depth play area for children with fountains and water cannons, and plenty of poolside picnic areas. The entire three-and-a-half acre site and proposed 11,000 square feet of water surface area could accommodate up to 1,000 people at one time.
Still, consultants believe that the park can only expect to attract 15,000-18,000 visits in its first year, gradually building up to a peak of 33,000 visitors per year within five years. That's not necessarily enough patronage to pay off what could be a $2 million debt.
Morgan County residents voted in a SPLOST initiative in the fall of 2006 that will generate $750,000 for a new pool and improvements to a county recreation site in west Morgan on Fears Road. The county has about another $200,000 or so in residuals from the last SPLOST and potential grant monies. Even if the cost of the project could be brought down to closer to $3 million by phasing in some parts of the park (one of the large water slides could be postponed until a later phase of the project, for example), that still leaves $2 million that is not in hand. And while the county allowed that a portion of a recent revenue bond issue (primarily for funding the new county jail)could be used to supplement the recreation board's proposed water park, no one will know for a while exactly how much, if any, of those revenue bonds will be available to pour into a water facility.
According to designers, the expense of the project is largely related to the high cost of construction materials, many of which are still be funneled into Louisiana post-Katrina. The costs of concrete and gasoline, in particular, are much higher than they were five years ago.
None of the project engineers or board members, it seems, have a crystal ball that can tell them exactly how many people will pay to visit the proposed park. In Gwinnett County, say recreation officials, no fewer than eight of these small water parks attract something on the order of 300,000 visitors each year. In Madison, there would be no competition for patrons of its water park, and growth in the number of residents is expected to outstrip that of residents in the region in years to come. But recreation board members want to be on sure footing before they ask the county to back a debt such as that proposed.
The board will continue to modify and massage the current proposal in the weeks to come, possibly developing a phasing system for the project or reducing the square footage of water in the park. They will also likely look for additional bids on the project in an effort to ascertain whether the cost can come down appreciably. Then they will discuss the park again.
“We're a pretty good ways from making a decision,” said Wood. In the meantime, board members may also look at the possibilities of corporate sponsorship of the park or fundraising opportunities that could help make the water park a reality.
“We've got sticker shock, is what it boils down to,” said Wood.