By Jeff Lehr

Globe Staff Writer

The first-season popularity of the new Ewert Family Aquatic Center is reducing the city's need to subsidize its pool operations with tax money.

With three weeks remaining in the municipal swim season, combined attendance at the three Joplin city pools in 2003 appears likely to come in just slightly higher than total attendance in 2002. Total revenues from admissions and concessions, on the other hand, are almost certain to be twice that of last year.

"Even though the attendance at Ewert is going to more than double, we've lost attendance at Cunningham and Schifferdecker," Parks Director Jerry Calvin said. "It's almost a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul situation."

The increase in revenues stems from higher admission prices at Ewert. Adult admission is $3.50. Children 15 and younger pay $2.50. Children under 3 get in free.

Despite those prices being higher than the $1 adults pay and the 75 cents children pay at Joplin's other two pools, attendance at the Ewert pool could top 16,000 by closing time Sunday.

After Sunday, the aquatic center will be open only on weekends through Labor Day, when it will close for the season.

The parks director said the city is pleased, however, to see pool revenues increasing because one of the goals of the city's pools-renovation project is to reduce the percentage of operations being subsidized by tax money. The "industry standard" is to try to cover about half the costs of operating a pool or aquatic center through admissions.

Joplin spends about $200,000 annually operating all three pools. Admissions covered only about 12 percent of costs in 2002. Admissions and concessions combined brought in $38,435, or about 19 percent of costs, last year.

This year, admissions and concessions combined are expected to bring in 35 to 40 percent of costs.

Calvin expects total attendance to continue to rise in coming years, especially once the city renovates the Cunningham Park pool, which is not expected to be completed before the spring of 2005.

"The big reason is all the new play features at the aquatic centers," he said. "There's just more things for children to do."

He said the Ewert aquatic center and the one being designed for Cunningham Park also offer better accessibility, improved bathhouses and shaded areas both in the pool and around its deck that today's swimmers, more conscious about sun protection, desire.

Paul Bloomberg, city recreation manager, said the makeup of the crowd at the new aquatic center has changed this summer.

"Before, in the past, parents would just drop their kids off there," Bloomberg said of the old Ewert pool. "Now, there's more families coming in."

He said that if there's an age group whose presence at the Ewert pool has fallen off, it is teenagers. He attributes that to the aquatic center's lack of diving boards.

But younger children seem to like the slides and other new features, he said.

"The lily-pad walk we put in is, by far, the most used," Bloomberg said. "I've got to think it's the excitement and sense of adventure in trying to get across. They love it."

The oversized lily pads floating on the surface of the pool are chained to the bottom and have ropes overhead that allow swimmers to work their way across the pool from pad to pad.

The Schifferdecker pool closed for the season on Sunday. The Cunningham pool will be open through next Sunday.

Prior to the decision to renovate the Ewert and Cunningham pools, the perception in Joplin was that city pools were leaking attendance to the Pittsburg Aquatic Center in Pittsburg, Kan., and the Lamar Aquatic Park in Lamar.

Falloffs in attendance at those two water parks this summer might suggest that Joplin is beginning to succeed in keeping pool revenues at home, even though the total attendance increase in Joplin looks like it will be slight, at best.

As of Aug. 6 last year, the Lamar Aquatic Center had 20,039 non-season-pass admissions. As of Aug. 6 this year, the number had dropped to 14,351.

"We are down appreciably," said Marsha Doyle, director of parks and recreation in Lamar.

She attributes about 40 to 50 percent of the falloff to a lower draw of Joplin residents.

"I think the other half of the picture is the economy," Doyle said. "People are not spending as much. They're afraid to."

She said an apprent increase in the number of people with backyard pools and some bad weather early this swim season have also come into play.

The slide in attendance has been even more pronounced in Pittsburg. Admissions totaled 27,805 for 67 days as of last Wednesday. In the 80 days the water park was open in 2002, it drew 55,600.

Kim Vogel, the city recreation coordinator in Pittsburg, believes the drop has more to do with the weather this year than with any other factor. She said there have been several rainy days, when the center had to be closed, and a long stretch of extreme heat.

"From what I hear, places that have indoor pools have done better than us this year," Vogel said. "Grandparents and parents don't want to get out and sit in the heat."

Katie Patterson, manager of The Swimmin' Hole Water Park, a privately operated Joplin business, said the opening of the Ewert Family Aquatic Center has not affected the business much, if any, in its third year of operation. Admissions there are up a bit this year, she said.

She said the water park, which charges $10 for adults and $8 for children ages 3 to 12, is still so new that many who go there say they were not aware of its existence. The Swimmin' Hole features an encircling waterway dubbed "Lazy River," another designated "Rapid River," with a downhill slide, a "zipline," jumping cliffs, drop slides, a tube slide and a "kiddie" pool.

Calvin said the improved attendance at the Ewert Park pool appears to be bearing out the advice of the city's consultant on the pools-renovation project that the pool with the poorest attendance should be renovated first.

The city spent $1.1 million on renovation of the Ewert Park pool after designating $1.6 million of revenues from a three-eighths-cent sales-tax increase approved by voters in November of 2001 for renovation of the pools in Cunningham and Ewert parks. The city is counting on grant money to supplement the remaining $500,000 in sales-tax revenues it has designated for pool renovations.

The decision to include pool renovations in the proposed park and storm-water-drainage improvements that voters approved two years ago came on the heels of the defeat of a city proposal to construct a $5 million water park in Joplin.

Most of the funds the city had set aside for the water park have since been spent on other parks-related studies and improvements, including a $500,000 local match on pending construction of the Nature Center, a $185,000 match on Landreth Park improvements, a $900,000 match on Memorial Hall improvements, $1.86 million spent on neighborhood park upgrades, $120,000 spent on McClelland Park and $100,000 spent on Joe Becker Stadium.

City Manager Steve Lewis said about $3.8 million of the $5 million in water-park money has been spent or is earmarked to be spent on parks-related improvements. He said those funds have been matched with about $2.7 million in state and federal grants so far.

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