When Alec Lawson turned 12 last Monday, there was one place he wanted to go: Wetlands Water Park in Jonesborough. His aunts Whitney and Jessica Greer hadn’t been in years and thought it would be a great idea to introduce Alec and his little brother, Gavin, to the water park.
“I just want to have fun,” Alec said. “This is my first time here so I don’t know what my favorite part is yet.”
Encouraging his little brother onto one of the smaller slides, he raced down it himself and came out of the water splashing and laughing. Wetlands was a hit. By the end of the day, Alec knew his favorite part, but what neither he nor his brother or aunts knew were the challenges Wetlands has navigated to develop a business model that keeps the park – owned and operated by the Town of Jonesborough – financially viable.
What many locals see simply as a great spot to stay cool and have fun during the summer, really is a public service equipped with business-minded operators.
Wetlands opened in 1994. It cost $1.7 million to build, and all but $285,000 of that came from revenue bonds and a capital outlay note. That debt was paid off in 2009. Additional improvements over the years have been funded through capital outlay notes, the most recent of which has $46,900 annual payments and will be paid off next May.
Water Park Director Matt Townsend is in his fourth season. He was there a few years ago when the park had a couple of very successful years followed by a change in the weather, literally, as well as some new competition in Kingsport that created a need for some creative business strategies.
After bringing in $547,248 in 2009-10 (ending June 30), the park grew revenues to $611,728 in 2010-11 and $621,151 in 2011-12. The park made money in all those years, operating nearly $100,000 in the black the first two. Capital outlay note proceeds spent in 2009-10 and 2010-11, though, would have pushed both those years into the negative.
Near the end of the 2012-13 year, Kingsport’s aquatic center opened. Wetlands revenues fell 28 percent that year, to $447,501, but operating expenses dropped by just 5 percent and the park lost $105,657.
Revenues fell a further 16 percent in 2013-14, to $375,275, before rebounding slightly in the year just ended to $406,663. Net losses were $131,961 in 2013-14 and $90,650 (unaudited) in the year ended June 30.
Townsend said making sure his staff is on board with the park’s business model is key to success. “We’ve started offering a little more to our customers,” Townsend said to explain that strategy. “We have special days like Sunday Fun Day where there are discounted tickets for everyone. It’s the little things like that.”
He said all of his staff understand that being diligent with employee hours is important to making sure costs are spent wisely and only when needed. That approach appeared to pay dividends in 2014-15, when operating expenses decreased by $10,000 while revenues increased by $31,000.
“We have an experienced management staff here and they’re good at tracking the customer traffic,” Townsend added, “and they’re good at just recognizing that and being diligent as far as what the business needs. When you get your entire team to sell out for that idea, it helps us out in leaps and bounds.”
Along with the weather and rival water parks, another factor to contend with is Washington County’s school schedule, which moved to an earlier start date several years ago. The shorter the summer is, the less sense it makes to keep the water park open on weekdays. This makes what already is a short season for operation even shorter.
In 2010, leadership decided to purchase a water heater to try and get folks splashing around earlier in the year.
It’s those types of investments that have helped Wetlands maximize revenues as it strives to operate profitably.
Jonesborough’s Mayor Kelly Wolfe said, “We went from doing a good job kind of being in the mode we had been in, to having to deal with the weather and some new competition all at the same time. And by itself, the weather could put you on your heels.”
Now, he said, the park is doing an excellent job of acting more like it belongs in the private sector.
“We’re having to re-double our efforts at marketing,” he explained. “We also are reducing the overall budgeted allowance for employee costs. We expect you from the get-go to do more with less.”
Townsend understands the importance of a new marketing strategy and other creative tactics. Still, he emphasized the importance of remembering why Wetlands is there in the first place: to serve the community at the best price it can.
“We haven’t totally reinvented ourselves,” he said, “but we have really opened ourselves up to the public and said ‘we’re an old park and our main purpose is to be a division of Parks and Rec in Jonesborough.’ Our main purpose is to serve the community of Jonesborough, so we’re lowering costs for the guests when we can. Let’s get back to serving the customer and that was really the key for making it work.”