RUSSELLVILLE — The $6.6 million Russellville Aquatic Center has seen a wave of users since it opened a year ago on June 28, city officials said.
“We’re busier than probably we thought we were going to be our first year,” said Terry Thomas, director of Russellville Recreation and Parks.
The revenue total for the center is $272,389 since opening a year ago, said Melissa Beatty, assistant director.
The center is being paid for with a 1-cent sales tax, which residents voted in 2013 to renew.
Thomas said the center is on track financially for the projections.
“We basically have nothing to compare it to. We should be coming into our real good months right now with school being out,” he said. “It’s been packed the past two weeks.”
The 24,800-square-foot facility includes a therapy/exercise pool, an eight-lane competition pool, a splash pad for kids and meeting/party rooms.
“[The rooms are] rented all the time; they stay booked up with parties,” Thomas said.
TR Santos, center director, said he is one of three full-time staff members, and he has 26 part-time employees.
Santos said people of all ages are using the center, but senior citizens are the No. 1 group utilizing the facility.
“That therapy pool has been a huge success,” Santos said.
Shirley Kee of Russellville said she had two knee surgeries in 2016, and the doctor told her to lose weight. Walking was too hard, but swimming was easy on her knees.
“When they opened up last year, I joined in August, and I was 276 pounds. Right now, I’m 193; I’ve lost 83 pounds,” she said.
Kee said she swims for an hour or 1 1/2 hours almost every night and on the weekends.
“I love the aquatic center. I was so happy when it opened,” she said. “TR and everybody are so nice.”
Lisa Knight of Danville, a pre-K teacher, said she bought a monthly membership to the Russellville Aquatic Center and makes the drive three mornings a week to swim laps.
“I taught swimming 30-something years, so it’s nice to come over here and have some swim-alone time,” Knight said, laughing.
She said Danville has a new aquatic facility, too, “and it’s really awesome, but it’s outdoor. It wouldn’t be a place for lap swimming.”
The Russellville Aquatic Center opens at 5:30 a.m., and she swims about 7:15 a.m.
“Even that early in the morning, they are really friendly and helpful,” she said.
Santos said some classes are full.
“We’re killing it in water aerobics,” he said. “We’ve got a great teacher, [Tina Chronister], who is well-known and well-respected. Her classes are booked up; we’re pushing 30 people per class.”
Another teacher is being trained to offer more classes, Santos said.
Other classes at the aquatic center have included kayaking, Aqua Zumba, scuba diving and a water boot camp. The summer schedule is on the facility’s Facebook page.
“We’re not where we want to be with our programming, but we’re getting there,” Santos said.
Mommy and Me nights are offered in the heated therapy pool. Family movie nights are held each month with half-price admission and the opportunity to use all the pools, Santos said.
On July 13, the movie will be Jaws.
“Most of the people who came on family nights were people never here before,” Santos said.
New this summer is an inflatable, floating obstacle course, which can be separated into different pieces and configurations, Santos said.
“On Saturday, it was just crazy how many people were in here,” he said earlier this month.
Special events held at the center have been successful, too, Santos said.
“We had an Easter-egg hunt that probably had 800 people and 300 kids,” he said. “We put out 2,000 Easter eggs — 1,000 in the big pool, 1,000 in the therapy pool and some at the splash pad for the little kids. The splash pad is popular with the little kids.”
Reaching young people is one of Santos’ goals.
“We’ve got home-school classes now — organized [swim classes] as part of the curriculum for home-schoolers,” he said. “We partnered with Christian Community School and introduced swimming to fourth-graders last year. They come as part of PE class.
“We’ve got a beginning class through [Arkansas Tech] University this fall.”
Thomas said, “If this one goes well, they’re going to gradually add to it.”
Santos said the aquatic center held its first regional Special Olympics swim meet in April. Santos said his son, who has Down syndrome, swam across the pool.
“It was totally joy, grinning ear to ear. I was in the water with him,” Santos said.
Thomas said he is trying to bring in the state swim meet, and he’s optimistic that will happen.
“I’m pretty sure we’re going to get the high school state meet out there,” he said. “The school district bids on all that.”
He said operating the facility is a learning curve for the city.
“We’re still working out kinks and learning it. We’ve never had anything like it, so it’s just a different beast out there,” Thomas said.
“We’re getting ready to do a new master plan for the park system,” he said.
The last one was in 2003. The plans will likely include an outdoor water park, which had to be deleted from the aquatic facility to reduce the cost, he said. A new city pool is in the future, too, to replace the 40-year-old M.J. Hickey Pool.
But for now, the aquatic center is a nice outlet for the community, Santos said.
“Once we got in here and got programming and people saw the quality of what we do, it’s just a great success,” Santos said.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or email@example.com.