Splash in the Boro Waterpark's inability to open for a 2020 season because of the COVID-19 pandemic left Bulloch County taxpayers to pay $697,175 just in loan principal and interest so far. A county spreadsheet shows Splash's fiscal year 2020 and fiscal year-to-date 2021 losses total almost $1.58 million.
But the county was already subsidizing the capital investment in the waterpark before the pandemic, especially since a $7.4 million loan in fiscal 2017 that funded the addition of the wave pool and other amenities and refinanced the remaining debt from a 2009 expansion. So the same spreadsheet shows an accumulated balance of $2.86 million owed by Splash to the county's general fund from the four most recent fiscal years.
"I think it was just a cyclical series of events where weather issues and construction or improvement issues combined to hurt our net operating income, and it really came to roost last year with COVID where we had to make that $600,000-plus debt payment for this fiscal year," said County Manager Tom Couch.
On the bright side, Splash is now scheduled to reopen for a 2021 season the weekend of May 22-23, bringing visitors from a region far wider than Bulloch County and employing about 360 summer workers, mainly youth from age 17 through their college years. County officials also anticipate that $1 million or more of federal "stimulus" cash could help offset losses going forward while efforts are made to put Splash's operations on a sounder financial footing.
That $1 million or more would be out of approximately $15.4 million the Bulloch County government could qualify for under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. ARPA is the most recent of the pandemic-related federal stimulus or relief packages.
Budgeted as an "enterprise fund" like a city water and sewer department, Splash is supposed to pay for itself, or at least its annual operations, from its admissions, concessions and program fees. It may be the one unit of the Bulloch County government that can claim a "revenue recovery" share in the ARPA funding, since the county does not have a shortfall in tax-funded budget elements, Couch told the county commissioners during an April 20 work session.
He also cautioned that the possibility of $1 million, or possibly more, for Splash, like the rest of the estimated $15.4 million ARPA funding, remains subject to guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department.
The ARPA funding could create a "cushion" for Splash until its management in the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department can make some changes and "create a cycle of success again," Couch said in a follow-up interview.
A $798,103 fiscal year 2021 loss shown in the spread sheet is a "year-to-date" figure, and the fiscal year does not end until June 30. So by opening in May, the waterpark could begin to reduce that some, Couch noted.
"If they can get a good start and keep their expenses in check, maybe that will flatten that figure or possibly even bring it down a little bit, but then we've really got to depend on the pandemic subsiding and the weather being promising," he said.
But a $781,857 loss for the previous fiscal year, 2020, is already on the books. The spreadsheet shows fiscal 2015 as the last year Splash's operations were in the black, with a $65,714 net income. Losses followed of $111,098 for 2016, $307,508 for 2017, $293,936 for 2018 and $296,570 for fiscal 2019.
Rain during the season limited attendance, and days open, during two of those seasons. Meanwhile, the wave pool's opening was delayed by the need to install sound buffering between the structure and neighboring homes, and the county incurred both that expense and the cost of a new inflatable dome for the aquatics pool, Couch said.
Then came COVID-19.
Marketing and services
Statesboro-Bulloch Parks & Recreation Director Eddie Canon arrived on the job last July and has yet to see a season when Splash opened. But he called on Atlanta-area aquatics consultant Bob McCallister, whom he has known for years, for what Canon says was an informal study of how to move forward.
One of the recommendations was for an improved marketing plan, and Splash is now marketing throughout the region, Canon said.
"We're also offering more programming than we've offered before, where that is swimming lessons, therapeutic-type classes," he said. "We're looking at adding more revenues and also more classes through that."
Parks & Recreation is also promoting rental of facilities at Splash for events such as birthday parties and looking into featuring some movies and other events in the pool facility, and adapting hours to fit this.
But new training both for full-time employees and part-time, seasonal employees is the thing Canon emphasizes most.
"I've never been through a Splash season, so I'm really anxious to get started and get up and running, and my big emphasis is customer service," he said on the phone last week. "We're there to serve the citizens of Bulloch County but also the citizens of the region of south Georgia and South Carolina. We get a lot of people here, so we put a lot of emphasis on customer service and helping people that come here have a great experience."
Splash will cut back in one aspect in an effort to reduce expenses. The concession areas will offer a simpler range of choices -- a dozen candy bars instead of two dozen was the hypothetical example Canon used -- and will employ fewer people.
A few fewer workers
Overall, the 360 seasonal workers will be reduction from 391 employed by Splash in the 2019 season, but just a few years before that the total was between 200 and 300.
The 360 will include lifeguards, slide attendants, maintenance workers, front-of-house guest services staff and the concessions employees. All receive training specialized for their jobs.
First interviewed about the subject two weeks ago, Canon said Parks & Recreation had seen a surprisingly high amount of interest in the summer jobs at Splash. From February to April the department hosted one job fair for all types of jobs with the county and another just for Splash and also participated in a student jobs fair hosted by Georgia Southern University.
Staff members also visit local high schools to do some recruiting.
"We are going to ramp-up just like we did in 2019, and that's what we're preparing for because we want to make sure that we have the staff there to provide the services that we would need at full capacity, and then if we need to back off of that we will," Canon said.
Social distancing at the park is expected to reduce its capacity at any one time from 3,500 guests to 1,750, according to his earlier announcement. Masks will not be required but will be encouraged in pool deck areas.
However, a full-length season is planned.
The waterpark will open May 22 from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. and May 23 from noon until 6 p.m. Beginning May 29, Splash will remain open seven days a week through Aug. 1., operating Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Thursdays and Saturdays 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; and Sundays noon – 6 p.m.
Beginning Aug. 2, the park will be open for weekends only through Labor Day, Saturdays from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sundays from noon – 6 p.m.