Saginaw\'s Spray Park: The \'Wave\' of the Future?

Posted In: Politics, Local, News, Local,   From Issue 646   By: Mike Thompson

04th October, 2007     0

Imagine you're in charge.

You're looking at the abandoned site of Saginaw's Andersen Water Park, shaking your head and saying,  "What a shame."

But there's a chance you can get your hands on about $1 million, maybe a little more. Your choices:

(A) Repair and renovate the wave pool and water slides back to something near their original 1988 splendor.
(B) Cut your losses and try something else.

City leaders are going with Plan B.  'Something else' features a trendy new water spray park, combined with a skate park, a picnic pavilion, a fishing pier and various green spaces. Bocce courts are even included in plans for a new jewel in the central parks system.

"This way (compared to the old water park) we can offer a little bit of something for all ages, and the best part is that admission is free," says Jeffrey Klopcic, the city's Geographic Information Systems Coordinator, who stepped beyond his normal job duties to prepare design schemes.

City Manager Darnell Earley explains another 'best part.'  He estimates the city's required annual operating tax subsidy at $25,000 for park maintenance and a few seasonal employees to keep watch on the grounds.

Saginaw no longer can afford a yearly subsidy of $150,000 to $175,000 for a municipal pool that requires lifeguards and other intensive staffing, Earley says, especially in a northern climate with a short season and unpredictable weather.

Looking ahead

Klopcic is from Mount Pleasant, Earley from Muskegon Heights. Like most of the parties involved, they were not around during the 1980s. That was the era of an ill-fated water park plan that started with $500,000 from philanthropist Frank N. Andersen, who was approaching his 100th birthday at the time and wanted to replace the former municipal pool that bore his name.

Planners during the '80s perceived that the bells and whistles of a wave-making pool with huge slides could break even, and perhaps prove to be a moneymaker. They were proven wrong.
Attendance peaked at 67,000 in the debut season, but soon dipped closer to 30,000 per year through the 1990s. City officials finally brought out the mothballs after the summer of 2002, but they couldn't recover wasteful expenditures that included $750,000 from their own water fund.
Indeed, the total cost for the original facility was $2.6 million, including $640,000 of State Land & Water Conservation grant money.

Two years after the closure, a public-private planning group emerged with a desire to move ahead rather than reviewing the errors of the past. Members learned from their research that spray parks had become a popular alternative. At the same time, they revived a year 2000 skate park plan that was starting to gather dust.

"I came in at the request of the group, and immediately I became really excited," Klopcic says. "This is going to be great."

He cites the example of Midland, which has a skate park on one side of the Tridge and a spray park on the other.

"Ours will be all in one," he boasts.

The timetable is in three phases.

First, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in December is to decide upon a $69,000 grant request for removal of the old water park. This involves not just the slides and pool, but the pump house and the surrounding fence. Possibly, an out-of-town buyer may come forward for the slides. Work would occur in 2008.

Phase Two, for the spray park and related amenities, would cost about $500,000 and transpire in 2009.

Phase Three, for the skate park and picnic area, would require a closing $500,000 with work taking place in 2010.

DNR officials have mandated that Saginaw do something with a water park site that originally received state support during the 1980s.  Whether the State will approve these funds is open to speculation, especially with the first one costing approximately $185,000 per year over its 14-year life span.

What's a spray park?

The wave pool essentially was a draw for youngsters starting in older elementary grades, and then reaching through middle and high school years. A 4-year-old or 7-year-old could enter, but had access to little more than a small wading pool. Beyond that, the cost of admission plus a near-mandatory inner tube started to approach $10 in today's dollars for a youngster of any age.  Moreover, it cost $6.00 per head just to break even on the building costs of the endeavor, not including operating costs.

In contrast, the spray park is geared to the smaller tykes. Klopcic describes three circular areas with soft surfaces that collect no depth of water, relying on intensive drainage.

 (1) Discovery, for ages 0 to 4. Toddlers and preschoolers pretty much simply  'get wet' with no risk of being sprayed or getting water in their eyes. They may stand beneath cascades of water, similar to being beneath a waterfall.
(2) Exploration, for ages 5 to 8. Children run through soft arcs of water, through hoops and various forms of playground equipment. From time to time, buckets of water may fall upon their heads.
(3) Thrills, for ages 9 to 12. This is where the serious action takes place. The kids may choose to spray and soak one another, and water from the various mechanisms will emerge fast and furious.

Each of the three pods will accommodate up to 60 children at once, while parents or guardians watch from a circular seating area.

Klopcic says planners realized in spray park design that they were gearing the facility's centerpiece to smaller children than the wave pool attracted. As a result, parents can feel assured that their younger offspring will not be mingling with older teens. The setting, in essence, is similar to an elementary school.

"To make sure we would also have something for the older group, that's part of the reason that we incorporated the skate park," he explains.

An enthusiastic report from the National Recreation and Parks Association says facilities also are known as  'aquatic playgrounds' or even 'spray grounds'.  Some children (and their parents) are fearful of deeper bodies of water, but a spray park eliminates those concerns and allows even the youngest toddler to get involved.

Out with the old . . .

Two decades ago, wave pools with slides were presented as 'the new thing' in municipal pools. Now they are becoming dinosaurs, at least in northern regions.

"Some communities just don't have the budget for a pool that requires full-time staff and costly maintenance expenditures," the parks association reports.

"Because spray parks operate through the use of computerized control systems, the operating season is extended and the need for lifeguards is eliminated."

Klopcic says Saginaw has an added cost advantage because the water treatment plant is nearby. Planners are deciding whether to funnel spray park water on a one-time use into the river, or to treat the water below the park surface for repeated uses.

An example of budget expense for wave pools with slides is the Heath Water Park in Heath, Ohio, a community of 9,000 east of Columbus.

"It's a nice amenity to have but it's very expensive to operate," says Mayor Richard Waugh, who pointed to $150,000 in annual debt service along with occasional operating subsidies.
"A lot depends on the weather during a particular season, but most water parks of the type require some sort of subsidy. Still, communities need these types of amenities, to have some type of balance."

Saginaw's water park was described as 'in disrepair' after only 15 years. Waugh says Heath's original municipal pool had a shelf life of 29 years, with the new water park built as a replacement in 2001.

Skate park revived

Skate park plans from the 1990s were placed on hold at the start of the new millennium, when state and city governments simultaneously entered budget crunches. Klopcic says times still are tough, but the lack of a need for annual funds could help make things happen.

The skate park's planned location is across Fordney Street from the YMCA, in about the same location where the water park now stands. The spray park will extend deeper into the grassy area behind Andersen Enrichment Center, closer to the Lake Linton Reservoir.

Klopcic sees big potential for fishing piers along the reservoir, noting that the water is cleaner than in the nearby river because of discharges from the water treatment plant.

"By and large, that's Lake Huron water," he says, referring to the city's 55-mile pipeline to the northern fresh water source. "There's crappies, sunfish, carp. Then we will have bocce courts nearby. This is one of the most beautiful locations in the parks systems, but sadly today it is not used."

Saginaw's official web site,, before the end of October is to display a review of plans. The National Recreation and Park Association report on spray parks is available via


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