That Sailfish Splash Water Park (SSWP) has always been controversial is an understatement. SSWP was born out of what the taxpayer was told was a need to replace the Martin County High School Swimming Pool (which we are still paying well over $100,000 through our school taxes to maintain annually). Its creation was also strongly supported by several swimming interest groups in the county. The County is proud to say SSWP was built without “taxpayer dollars”. Well, unless you consider sales tax “taxpayer’s dollars”. Humm. Water under the bridge, I guess. Its been stated that over its 6 year life span SSWP has supported itself. That it does not use taxpayer dollars. So your 66 year old taxpayer watchdog organization, the Martin County Taxpayer Association (MCTA), decided that SSWP has been operational long enough to warrant deeper scrutiny.
We took a guided tour. We were impressed with the cleanliness and the “green” equipment. We were impressed by the management of the park. Kevin Abbate, Parks and Rec Director and Todd Foust, Special Facilities Administrator, were not only forthcoming and generous with information…they were surprisingly candid as well. They admitted the few things they could do better and we came away sure that they are not only doing their jobs but are going above and beyond to attempt to save money and grow revenue. For example, they have made impressive strides in merchandising and vendor revenue. And, MCTA is very pleased to report a well-managed park.
But how does it pay for itself? Over the years SSWP’s revenue has gone down…substantially. Attendance is down 51% since 2012. Season pass revenue has fallen by 62% over 5 years. It’s true that admission income has only fallen by 11%, but that is because the price of admission has gone up by 45%. There are unavoidable factors such as the weather which affect attendance. But, what is equally unavoidable and alarming is that according to both Abbate and Foust, water parks in general must continually re-create themselves with new rides and amenities in order to keep repeat customers. That’s a huge expense. They have 130 part time employees (mostly students…again, good management). The park was “in the black” by $3,500 in FY 2016. But offsetting that was a $90,000 subsidy as well as $81,000 in indirect costs. Clearly this puts the park well into red territory. Since its inception the park has gotten a total of $479,404.64 in subsidies. In FY15 and FY16 $210,000 of that amount was dedicated to pay for a Master Plan for Expansion and its design. Wait a minute. Maybe we shouldn’t expand just yet.
Let’s consider the above mentioned indirect allocations. Expenses such as audit costs, worker’s comp, general liability, accounting services, multi-media, fiscal management, public records, human resources and more were charged to some other county department. Not really transparent. And, its been that way since the beginning.
What of other expenses? The labor is well managed. Imagine lifeguards doubling as janitors. It’s true! The cost of maintenance on equipment is remarkable however. The water park revenue is supposed to support the competitive pool. But it’s not enough. Remember, the competitive pool is what justified the building of the water park. Key pads for example that are needed to time races during meets cost on average $4,000.00 a piece! Twenty of them are needed per meet. And their life expectancy is only 2 years. (Luckily Mr. Foust has found a company to refurbish them in order to save money…again good management).
But this is a conundrum indeed. We are talking about kids. There have been 2 Olympic champs in that pool. Right here in lil ‘ol Martin County. And, those Olympic champs have broken records in that pool! Additionally, SSWP gives sponsored swim lessons to underprivileged kids. How many lives have been saved? Priceless. To boot we must consider the summer jobs it provides and the scuba and aerobics classes.
What about the future? We were told that a deep dive well is needed in order to attract additional competitive swim teams. There is a deep dive well at MCHS, but alas, it is obsolete. And the minimum a deep dive well will cost is $1.2 million. Understand that there are estimates well over $5 million.
Ultimately, the Martin County Taxpayers Association is not here to judge whether or not this amenity is worth the ongoing taxpayer support it will need. That is up to the taxpayer. Ours is to simply report that we firmly believe the county taxpayer will have to make a strong and ongoing commitment to this facility in order to keep it going. After looking at the numbers, we believe no private enterprise will buy it. So, taking that option off the table, looking at ancillary benefits such as the hotel rooms it generates for swim meets (and undoubtedly it does, but the number is a nebulous one), and considering that, of course, we do not want to simply close it and have an urban blight in our midst, do we have a choice whether we commit to it for at least the next ten years? And to what extent?
The MCTA offers the following suggestions:
- Separate the numbers of the water park from the competitive pool so it is transparent as to whether or not it is in fact “making money”. And everyone should be on the same page with the definition of “making money”. The term “net profit” is less easy to throw lightly around.
- Indirect allocations with a track record should be included in the annual budget.
- The school superintendent and county administrator should jointly prepare an outline for a purposed study that would cover all existing governmental aquatic programs and facilities and including a comprehensive listing of current and future aquatic needs.
- Appoint a jointly funded administrator for a swimming program Enterprise Fund that would show all revenues and expenditures and coordinate all public swimming programs in the county.
- Martin County High School pool costs more than $100,000 per year to maintain. Its obsolescence was touted as a reason to build the new competition pool at SSWP. Close the MCHS pool and have the school board allocate funds toward the operating costs of the SSWP pool.
- Loosen restrictions so that the Bed Tax can be used for capital projects that draw visitors. Currently, SSWP receives NO bed tax revenue.
- The stakeholders ie. Swim clubs, avid swimmers, parents and coaches who were so vocal regarding building the park should form a Friends of SSWP and fund raise.
- Create a REAL reserve fund for maintenance and equipment replacement dedicated to SSWP so funds are not being transferred from other amenities or FARBs (fixed asset replacement fund). Although currently SSWP can not cover its cost much less fund a reserve.
- Concepts currently being discussed as new revenue producers, e.g. the dive pool and replacement of slides to “enhance the experience” at the water park should be included in an objective study of costs and revenue along with how the costs would be financed. And, perhaps before implementing suggestion #5, include in the study the determination as to whether to continue or discontinue operation of the MCHS pool. Include too, whether the water park side should be closed considering costs of refurbishing for the “experience”. In this case we taxpayers accept that the competitive pool is an asset of the county and simply understand that our taxes will pay for it.
- Look at other county entities to see if SSWP has more benefit than they and prioritize park funding.
- There should be a lounge area for adults if the park remains open.
- There should be a clear-cut formula for season ticket pricing.
- No more free days. Consumers wait for these. Perhaps entertain a needs-based sliding scale.
At the end of the day, this is a good facility and well run, but inherently needing of a continual infusion of capital. We, as taxpayers, need to weigh the lofty benefits with the continual cost. Because averaged out so far it has needed $250,00 in subsidy annually. You will have to decide. So the Martin County Taxpayers Association recommends that every Martin County Taxpayer visit Sailfish Splash Water Park. It is, in fact, a beautiful facility.