Supporters of a new Hilton Head Island aquatics center now want the town to plunge into the water park business.
Town Council met Thursday to reassess a proposal to create an aquatic center at Chaplin Park and discuss how to proceed with the $6.2-million planned expansion of the Island Recreation Center.
Council voted in December to keep an aquatic facility "on the horizon" in the town's five-year plan, but said progress wouldn't come this year.
Council members said the town could not afford the $7.6 million proposal because of other higher-priority projects. They also questioned whether use of the facility would offset the cost to operate and maintain it.
In response, supporters Thursday proposed council pursue a $7 million to $10 million water park they claim would generate $218,000 a year in income.
"We felt we were challenged to come back with a venue that could actually generate some revenue that could help fund some of the things we do, so we came back with the idea of a splash pad component at Chaplin Park," said Island Recreation Association board member Alan Perry.
THE NEW PROPOSAL
Instead of the eight-lane competition pool, three-lane warm-up pool and "splash pad" play area for children originally envisioned, the association wants the town to consider building a water park with a lazy river, water slides, splash pad, wave pool and other features.
The park would generate more than $927,000 in annual revenue compared to $709,400 in expenses, Perry said. Those figures are based on 120 days of use and an average of 450 visitors per day at a cost of $10 per child and $12 per adult, he said. The proposed park could handle up to 650 visitors, he said.
The association would use the money generated by the park to pay for a new indoor pool at a future date, Perry said.
Perry and supporters say the park would enhance tourism on the island and address a common concern of visitors and residents with pre-teens and teens: There's not enough to do for the age group.
"It's a community investment that enhances what we are. It would be a draw to help somebody come here," Perry said. "We had a small water park here before ... and our kids miss it."
Hilton Head Island hasn't had a water park since Waterfun Park on South Forest Beach closed in 2007 after 27 years.
A MIXED RECEPTION
At least one council member was skeptical.
"A pool complex is available everyday of the year," said Councilman George Williams Jr. "Something like this is only available during tourists season and sits idle the rest of the time. I understand the cash-flow for a water park ... but if it were so great down there on South Forest Beach, why the hell isn't it still there? ... To spend this kind of money for it to be open 120 days a year seems a waste."
Mayor Drew Laughlin and councilwoman Kim Likins disagreed.
"I think it would be an asset and very likely generate enough revenue to substantially offset the operations-cost deficit you'd have with a pool," Laughlin said. "We've seen the results of failure to continually invest in improving yourself. We had bad (tourism) trends here before the economic downturn, and the silver lining of the economic downturn was it kicked us into a different gear. We have the opportunity to make different investments and I think we should make them."
Likins agreed, saying families with children get bored quickly with the beach and look for other inexpensive family-friendly recreation activities found wanting on the island.
"This is something that could be great for the tourism industry we serve and the community at large," she said.
Council agreed the proposal deserves further review and will readdress it at its annual retreat at the end of month.
In the meantime, town manager Steve Riley said staff will work to "drill down" on cost and revenue estimates and study how the town would pay for it.
Riley said the town could likely borrow "well-beyond" $6 million without the need for a tax increase for the water park or rec center expansion.
Council still needs to assess how the proposal and the rec center expansion would fit with other planned projects, he said.
Video: Hilton Head aquatic center supporters float new water park idea (:56)Tom Barton
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