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Business model key to ‘Splash’

Mill Creek aquatic park needs no county subsidy

    Bulloch County manager, Tom Couch, readily admits he was "skeptical" about Splash in the 'Boro at first, fearful it would be a drain on the county and its taxpayers.
    "When I interviewed for this job over two and half years ago and they told me about the water park, my first thought was it would not be able to support itself," Couch said. "I just wasn't sure if it could be operated without the county subsidizing it. I have gone from being a skeptic to a believer. Operationally, it is paying for itself."
    The $5.4 million water park, which is located in the Mill Creek Recreational Park complex, just completed its third summer season, in which it took in record revenues exceeding $1.16 million with an attendance of just over 111,000 people.
    The park operates on the same fiscal year as state and local governments do which begins July 1 and ends on June 30. At the end of this past fiscal year, fiscal year 2006, Splash's revenues exceeded its operating expenses before depreciation was accounted for, something Couch had hoped for when he accepted the position as county manager.
    "I felt if Splash was going to support itself, it should be run like a business, and that is what we decided to do," Couch said. "We use an enterprise accounting system which is patterned after the private sector, but is designed for the public sector."
    "After depreciation, we took a very small loss this year, but we are building a reserve fund from which we can pull from if we have a season with chronic bad weather or a major maintenance issue arises," he said.
    It was the continued viability of the park that motivated Couch to push for the development of a five year strategic plan plotting Splash's future.
    "Splash is a big public investment of well over $5 million dollars, and I feel it is the county's obligation to keep it up," he said. "That is why I thought it was important to have a strategic plan going forward. It would be like a business model in that we would base all of our decisions on it."
    The plan was recently completed by Counsilman-Hunsaker and Associates, an international aquatic design firm which has participated in over 500 aquatic venue projects.
    Scot Hunsaker, the firm's president, said those associated with Splash have much to be proud of.
    "Splash is a municipal facility that is performing like a retail facility," Hunsaker said. "That is very unusual. It would be very easy for them to rest on their laurels instead of worrying about what should be done to maintain the excitement factor and viability of the park, but that is not what they are doing."
    Hunsaker said that Splash is in an unusual position in that there really isn't a comparable water park in the surrounding area and there aren't a lot of other attractions to choose from.
    "Splash is a well developed aquatic facility that is operating as a regional facility," Hunsaker said. "The summer operation pays for itself as well as for the dome pool operations which are open year around."
    Hunsaker said the park's biggest challenge is going to be to maintain a quality experience for its guests, one that continues to be fun and exciting.
    Chad Avret is an operations division manager with the Statesboro Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department. It is his job to oversee the daily operations of the aquatic facility.
    "The main mission of Splash is to serve a need for aquatic recreation for our citizens," Avret said. "I think that we have been able to do that, but secondarily we have served a regional need."
    "Based on information that we gathered when people were purchasing their tickets, it looks like at least 50 percent of our guests were from counties other than Bulloch," he said.
    Avret said it is so important that the facility maintains its marketability.
    "We will have to keep the level of aesthetics high within the facility by maintaining a feeling of newness every year," he said. "That might include something different to do."
    Something "different", according to Couch, is an addition to the facility that he hopes will be completed by the beginning of the summer of 2008.
    "The expectations of consumers are much more sophisticated now," Couch said. "Within the next two years we will probably augment Splash with an additional feature that we hope will meet those expectations."
    Couch nor Avret would say what the new addition might be, but both acknowledged that the strategic plan stressed the need to build enhancements that interest teenagers.
    "Barring any unforeseen circumstances, it is my hope that we will have a new feature completed by the summer of 2008," Couch said. "I can't say what that feature will be just yet, but I can say that hopefully something new is on the horizon."
    Couch said with all of the excitement that surrounds the water park, the people that are behind the scenes aren't always given their proper due.
    "I have got to comment on the jobs that Chad (Avret), Steve (Brown), and Kimberly (Sharpe) do," he said. "They have done a great job of running the facility, and they really train their people very well. They deserve much of the credit for the water park's success."

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