Saturday, May 29, 2010
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Roanoke Co. park makes a big splash

An eager crowd hit the slides after Friday's ribbon cutting at the Splash Valley outdoor water park at Green Ridge Recreation Center in Roanoke County.

Krys Beane, 17, a senior at William Fleming High School, slides down one of the two large slides at Splash Valley, the outside aquatic play area at Roanoke County's Green Ridge Recreation Center.

JEANNA DUERSCHERL The Roanoke Times

Krys Beane, 17, a senior at William Fleming High School, slides down one of the two large slides at Splash Valley, the outside aquatic play area at Roanoke County's Green Ridge Recreation Center.

The pool features two large water slides with several smaller slides for younger children.

JEANNA DUERSCHERL The Roanoke Times

The pool features two large water slides with several smaller slides for younger children.

Unlike some of his William Fleming High School senior classmates, Krys Beane was not intimidated by the three-and-a-half-story climb to the top of the big slides at Splash Valley, Roanoke County's new outdoor water park.

Shortly after the park's official ribbon cutting Friday afternoon, Beane trudged up 34 feet and slipped into the twisting flume slide.

"My heart was beating a little bit," he said as he rejoined about a dozen of his classmates at the bottom. "But it was fun."

The group was there for the official opening and dedication of the long-awaited outdoor water park.

They were joined by a mostly younger crowd -- many under the watchful eyes of their parents -- as the spraying, splashing, sliding and floating began.

"This is a landmark that I believe will be here and be talked about for years to come," said Roanoke County Board of Supervisors Chairman Butch Church before he and a group of dignitaries and employees of the Green Ridge Recreation Center cut a dark green ribbon.

Pete Haislip, the county's director of parks, recreation and tourism, said after the ceremony his goal "is that just like people who bring in friends from out of town always take them to the [Mill Mountain] star, they'll also bring them to Splash Valley."

The North Roanoke County pool actually had what Green Ridge Manager Matt Henke called a "soft opening" on Monday.

It was done without fanfare or advertising, but gave the staff a chance to get used to working in the new facility with modest crowds of 150 to 175 each day.

Splash Valley has a capacity of up to 650. Once it reaches that, people can line up to enter on a first-come, first-served basis.

Those who pay the daily fee can have their hands stamped and return later, but do have to stand in line -- if there is one -- to re-enter.

If the pool is closed during the day by inclement weather, patrons can use their receipt as a rain check for a later date. If the weather is iffy, Henke said people can call 387-6455 ahead of time to make sure the pool is open.

An incoming storm threatened to disrupt Friday's ceremony, but held off long enough for the official remarks and to give scores of kids and parents a chance to try out the water.

Robert and Kathy Thompson have been members of Green Ridge since it opened in January. Friday, they brought out daughters Emily, 5, Hailey, 4, and Katelynn, 3, for their first dip in the outdoor pool.

Asked to grade the facility, Robert Thompson said he'd give it an A.

"The kids are still just learning how to swim," so the available life jackets and zero-depth entry at one end were perfect for them, he said.

"I'd say we'll probably be here every weekend," except those they take the children for a ride on their grandfather's boat at Smith Mountain Lake.

Green Ridge monthly membership fees range from $66 for a family, to $15 for a child up to age 12. Rates are slightly higher for nonresidents of the county. Those fees do not include admission to Splash Valley, which does not require membership in the rec center for entry.

Scott Ramsburg, marketing director for the county's parks, recreation and tourism department, noted that the first 500 people to buy annual memberships were offered an option to add unlimited Splash Valley admission to their packages for an additional fee. Just more than half -- 260 -- took the center up on that offer, which is no longer available.

Green Ridge now has 2,457 membership "units," Ramsburg said, which includes families. That adds up to 7,019 individual members.

The entire rec center project was the subject of considerable criticism from the start, and the five-member board of supervisors approved the project on only a 3-2 vote.

Just months after its approval, the economy soured. Complaints about its cost -- about $35 million, its necessity and its accessibility to residents at opposite corners of the county were aired in letters to the editor, online blogs and board of supervisors meetings.

Probably the most targeted aspect of the project was the $3.5 million indoor and outdoor aquatic play area. Amenities such as the three-and-a-half-story flume slide, lazy river and spray areas drew much of the criticism.

Haislip and his staff, however, insisted all along that a 2006 survey of county residents that they conducted proved high interest in such a facility.

That seems to have been borne out as membership and attendance figures have soared well above projections since the Green Ridge facility opened Jan. 1.

Originally, the county had projected it would take three years for memberships and fees to cover total costs.

Based on experience so far, however, Haislip's budget for the coming year anticipates that fees will cover the expected $2.8 million in operating expenses -- $400,000 of that generated by Splash Valley. Ramsburg said officials are expecting some 55,000 admissions by the time the pool closes for the season.

Just in case, however, there is still some $100,000 set aside from the bond proceeds that built the center to help offset potential cost overruns. And county taxpayers will be paying the $1.8 million in principal and interest on the bond payments next year.

For now, however, it appears that there are plenty of visitors who won't be thinking about the debt, but about the fun.

Friday, that included Rick Burch, chief of the county's fire and rescue department, who took the first ride in the "bowl" slide that drops riders out the bottom of a swirling cyclone of water.

First out of the flume ride was Mary Haislip, daughter of Pete Haislip.

"It's really a lot of fun," said Mary Haislip, a Lord Botetourt High School freshman. "Really fast.

"I'm going to be here a lot."

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