Pittsburgh leaders are following up on the success of two miniature water parks, known as "spray parks," by building more of the facilities to open in three city neighborhoods this summer.
After the Act 47 state financial oversight team found that the city was spending too much money on swimming pools in 2004, Pittsburgh was forced to close 13 pools. One of those reopened a few years later thanks to a nonprofit organization, but the others remained unused for years.
That's until 2009, when the former Cowley Pool facility in Troy Hill was converted into a spray park, with jets of water that gush and spout whenever a sensor is set off. A year later, the same conversion happened to the old Beechview pool.
Pittsburgh Operations Director Duane Ashley said the demand for water recreation is still strong from the sweeping pool closures in 2004.
"It’s one thing to compress services and make your facilities more regionalized, but the fact of the matter is oftentimes, some of our kids don’t have the ability to get from Point A to Point B," Ashley said. "So in order to not leave those kids stranded in the summer without meaningful recreational activities, we’ve looked at the closed pool sites. Essentially, the first option would be a replacement spray park.”
The spray parks in Beechview and Troy Hill have been so successful – and so cheap – that the city is building three more to open this summer: one in the East Hills, another in Shadyside and a third one in Arlington.
Ashley admitted that having a spray park is not quite the same as having a community swimming pool. For one, the children aren’t learning how to swim by running through the fountains. However, he said the spray parks have become a way to provide kids with some summer fun at a much lower cost than a pool.
City Council Parks and Recreation Chair Corey O’Connor said Pittsburgh just doesn’t have the money to resurrect swimming pools. Not only are they expensive to fill up and run each swimming season, but also after almost 10 years of dormancy, each one would need a $400,000 investment just to reopen.
“Once we abandon them, it really deteriorates, and that’s the problem," O'Connor said. "If you look at some of them, you can’t flick the water spigot and we’re ready to go; there’s a lot of work that needs done."
It also costs about $400,000 to convert the pipes of a former pool to be used for a new spray park. However, the spray parks use far less water because the jets are activated by sensors. They also require fewer lifeguards and maintenance staff.
The new spray parks in Shadyside and the East Hills are scheduled to open on Memorial Day, while the Arlington spray park is slated to start up later this summer. Plans are also in place for the next crop of new spray parks to be constructed for 2014, including parks in Hazelwood and Lawrenceville.
Operations Director Ashley said he wouldn’t be surprised if the city has 10 or more spray parks spouting across the city in a few years.
While it may not be a swimming pool and it certainly isn’t the Sandcastle water-park, O’Connor said the spray parks have become community attractions.
"The good thing is you bring everybody together in a community sense to this park, and then they use other assets, whether it’s a ball-field, basketball court, swings, slides — everybody’s there and they gather together,” he said.