Several months ago, my wife and I joined the steering committee for the proposed aquatic center project in Fort Dodge. We've volunteered our time to research, education and finally the campaign for the planned state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar facility, with a fate to be determined by local voters on Aug. 26.
At first blush, one may assume our interests were selfishly conceived. Yes, we have a three-year-old son. Yes, we frequent other aquatic facilities in the area. Yes, a center here would likely be visited almost daily by someone from our household.
We both had broader motives in mind when the plan began to take focus, though. It wasn't just about us, our friends, young families and the children of this community. In fact, it wasn't even about the aquatic center alone. The issue we talked about around the dinner table most was simply the future of Fort Dodge - what it would take to thrive, grow and hopefully prosper.
Creativity. Risks. Investments. Each other.
I decided to first study my professional bread-and-butter: the state softball tournament. Hosted by Rogers Sports Complex since 1970 - the longest-running relationship with a state event in Iowa - the five-day summer championship draws nearly 500 players and typically 20,000 fans to Fort Dodge every season. According to Dan Payne, executive director of the Fort Dodge Convention and Visitors Bureau, the tournament has a $1 million direct impact on our community annually. In addition, 51 percent of our tourists and visitors come to town strictly for events at Rogers Park.
The deeper you dig, the more the numbers grow. Taking the new 'Mini Majors' at Rogers Park into consideration - the Fort Dodge Baseball Association hosted three tournaments for its grand opening this year and saw the number of overall participants triple - and other youth baseball, softball and soccer events as well, the CVB said a total of 5,925 kids and over 51,000 spectators travel here for games and matches throughout the course of a given season.
In their free time - remember, many of these teams spend a weekend here, or in state softball's case, the entire week - where would they go? An aquatic center, perhaps?
''It would obviously be a popular enhancement from an entertainment standpoint,'' said Mike Dick, executive director of the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union. ''Anything Fort Dodge provides for players and fans during the down time is beneficial, and an aquatic center would be right up the kids' alley.
''Now let's make one thing clear: would the lack of an aquatic center influence any decisions about whether or not to stay in Fort Dodge (beyond the extended contract's completion in 2015)? Not in any way, shape or form. With that being said, the more entertainment options as a state tournament host for thousands, the better. (Rogers Park and the Parks and Recreation Department) provide everything we would ever need in a state venue. Adding (an aquatic center) that will directly benefit state softball visitors would be the icing on the cake.''
From the beginning, concerned citizens have asked about the attendance. Will it draw enough local, regional and even aforementioned state-wide users to keep the operation in the black?
The conclusions, either way, are purely speculative at this point. To try and clear up the murky waters, though, I did call the Parks and Recreation Department directors from a few similar-sized communities with relatively comparable facilities in Iowa: Marshalltown, Muscatine and Cedar Falls.
When Muscatine (population 22,697) opened its new aquatic center in 2004, attendance jumped from 19,152 at its traditional pool the year before to 46,576. It hasn't been below 40,000 since, and ballooned to 55,948 in 2005.
Marshalltown (population 25,977) had 23,646 people visit its traditional pool in the final season of 2002. The four-year aquatic center attendance average since 2003 has been 56,588.
Cedar Falls is the wild card. Its complex is the closest in size to our proposed facility, but it also draws from a larger local base (36,145 population, and Waterloo as a next-door neighbor). With that being said, Cedar Falls is also contending with Lost Island - one of the largest and most popular water parks in Iowa - which is less than 10 minutes away.
In 2005, Cedar Falls registered 38,134 users at its traditional pool and recorded $94,000 in revenue. When its new aquatic center opened in 2006, those numbers skyrocketed to 117,689 and $477,000, respectively. The first-year buzz even carried over into the next summer, when it drew 101,579 and accrued $476,000 in revenue. "The Falls" has cleared $209,052.04 and $189,607.73 in net profit during its first two summers, respectively.
Would I like for Fort Dodge citizens to vote yes on Aug. 26? Of course. I respect the the questions, concerns and fear of the unknown, however. If you crunch the numbers, weigh the options and still feel like a ''no'' vote is best for the well-being of Fort Dodge, who am I to judge your vote?
My goal is to provide more facts, more figures and hopefully a little different perspective. Hearing the whispers both from people around town and fans who visit Fort Dodge for athletic events, I would agree that we have work to do from a recreation and amenities standpoint. Considering how popular aquatic centers are in communities across the state and the fact that our main season for ''hosting'' comes in the summer months, I feel like the out-of-county traffic would handsomely supplement the area support.
I also view this as a possible ''gateway'' investment, which would strengthen our status as a regional hub while helping solve the employment shortages currently plaguing local companies. It wouldn't be a magic wand, but the potential is there to spark bigger and better things.
''Anything done to strengthen the quality of life in your community is a bonus, especially from Fort Dodge's perspective (as the state softball host),'' said Troy Dannen, the new University of Northern Iowa athletic director and former IGHSAU executive director. ''People love Rogers Park and they love the way they're treated when they visit. This would be one more attraction for the kids and fans to enjoy, and it would help create a lasting impression for the people who might leave and later recommend (the aquatic center) to others.
''State-wide right now, aquatic parks are the No. 1 feature enhancing the quality of life in our cities and towns. Speaking from my own experiences, when we moved (from Des Moines to Cedar Falls) recently, the first thing my family looked for was the aquatic park. It's a great way to get to know people and build relationships with families from the community.''
I owe Fort Dodge. I've lived here for the better part of 20 years. I went to school here. I work here. I met my wife here. My son was born here.
As I get older, my sense of civic responsibility grows. I don't feel like it's up to me, as a voter, to pick and choose projects based on my own personal interests. Instead, I try to make decisions that will help strengthen our collective future.
We could discuss for days what kind of investment this is and the level of risk attached to it. We could also debate the current state of our city's infrastructure, if we're headed in the right direction, and if our glass sits half-empty or half-full.
Whether you're for this particular project, against it or wading somewhere in between, I'd like to think that we'll be able to move forward from here and continue to share a common bond: concern for the future of this town. Only apathy and lack of vision will lead to our demise.
Eric Pratt is Sports Editor at The Messenger. He may be reached afternoons and evenings at 1-800-622-6613, or by e-mail at email@example.com