Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Should Decatur look to make bigger splash? Interactive fountain bi draw for Florence

By Catherine Godbey, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

The fountain at the River Heritage Park in Florence. “The fountain is everything we wanted it to be,” said Florence City Planner Melissa Bailey. “Hundreds come to the fountain each day. When it first opened, it wasn’t unusual to have 1,000 people at the park.”
Many visitors to Florence’s River Heritage Park leave envious, including Decatur residents.
Compared by fountain consultants to the Bellagio hotel’s fountain in Las Vegas, the park’s interactive fountain combines music, lights and water to create a recreational and entertainment Mecca.
Could Decatur provide residents with a similar attraction? Not with the current budget, poor-performing sales-tax revenues and higher-prioritized projects.

“Building a press box at Jack Allen, in our opinion, is the No. 1 priority,” said Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau President Tami Reist. “It would make Decatur eligible for more tournaments, and tournaments bring in money.”
Monday, the City Council approved transferring $150,000 designated for a parking lot at Ingalls Harbor to the soccer complex press box project, which translates to hosting opportunities.
The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics men’s soccer championship and the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s soccer tournaments both require press boxes at host sites.
With the press box approved, Reist said she is 99 percent certain the NAIA will tap Jack Allen to host the men’s 2010 and 2011 championships, which would generate a $500,000 economic impact each year.
“If we build a larger tax base and bring more money into the city, then maybe we could create funding for a fountain,” Reist said.
While local officials contemplate what additions would financially benefit Decatur, Florence officials are reveling in their attraction’s success, described as the “crown jewel of the park.”
“The fountain is everything we wanted it to be,” said Florence City Planner Melissa Bailey. “Hundreds come to the fountain each day. When it first opened, it wasn’t unusual to have 1,000 people at the park.”
Fred Boughner, Florence Parks and Recreation parks superintendent, concurred.
“It is quite overwhelming,” he said. “We had no idea it would be this popular.”
Featuring eight pumps capable of handling about 20,000 gallons a minute at full capacity and shooting it five stories high, the interactive fountain is not a splash pad, Bailey stressed.
For all ages
Unlike splash pads, which appeal primarily to children, the interactive fountain entertains all ages.
During the past three years, Decatur opened splash pads at Delano Park and the Carrie Matthews Recreation Center. Parks and Recreation also included a $200,000 splash pad in the master plan for Jack Allen. But none of the splash pads in existence or envisioned rivals the scale of Florence’s attraction.
At approximately 5,000 square feet, River Heritage Park’s fountain measures four times larger than the 1,200-square-foot splash pad at Delano Park.
“The splash pads are a hit and always crowded,” said Decatur Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Dunlap. “We started staffing an employee at Delano while the splash pad is open because it is so congested.”
The popularity of the existing splash pads generated discussion of adding more water features to the city’s neighborhood parks.
“If there were more splash pads, in the summer, they would be packed,” Dunlap said. “Could we use more water attractions? Yes.”
Parks and Recreation will push for the next splash pad at Jack Allen, estimated to cost $200,000, Dunlap said. But funding an interactive fountain is not a possibility for Decatur at present.
Florence’s interactive fountain cost approximately one-third of the $6.5 million used to build River Heritage Park, Bailey said. Funds stemmed from a $1.2 million federal grant from the Alabama Department of Transportation, capital improvement funding and a bond issue.
The park, part of former city planner Barry Broach’s vision in the late 1980s, took 20 months to construct.
Along with the fountain, the park overlooking Wilson Dam includes a playground, festival lawn, pavilion, meadow amphitheater and walk of fame.
Combined, the park’s features create a tourist attraction.
“Cities our size are typically a one- or two-day trip site, but this park combined with other draws like the Helen Keller home, W.C. Handy festival and Robert Trent Jones golf trail, we are getting to be a three- to four-day vacation site,” Bailey said.
For now — as Decatur, like many other city governments, struggles economically — thoughts of designating funds for newer and bigger water features are not financially feasible. But Dunlap said the city may consider an interactive fountain in the future.
According to Reist, “Would it be a draw for tourists here? Maybe not, but it would be an added benefit for tourists and more of an enhancer for the community.”
Florence’s fountain
Cost approximately $2 million to build over 20 months.
Eight pumps can handle 20,000 gallons a minute.
Measures 80 feet in diameter, or approximately 5,000 square feet.
Open daily from Memorial Day to the middle of August. Open weekends until the middle of September.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Night show begins at 9 p.m. and lasts 45 minutes.

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