Water park proves profitable despite doubts
Widely known for its out-of-the-box approaches to events and attractions, the city of Whiting has become the small city with big ideas. Its annual Pierogi Fest, Wickedly Whiting, and the WhoaZone at Whihala Beach sports park have put the city on the attraction map.
Last summer, WhoaZone’s floating sports park on Lake Michigan, proved to be a positive move for the lakefront and city.
“I think we’re using our resources now, and the lakefront is an amazing resource,” says Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura. “We spent considerable dollars to build the infrastructure out at the lakefront park.”
Those dollars have transformed the rock-piled lakefront to a sandy scape in the foreground of the Chicago skyline. During the summer, it features cabanas, sand volleyball courts, food concessions, grilling and boat launch areas.
But Stahura’s goal, he says, is always to draw consumers to the business district and help the survival of local businesses. “We knew once we were done with the physical components (of the lakefront), that we would then experiment programming the park to see what was the best way to bring people from the community,” he explains.
“We wanted to put some inflatable waterslides on the beach to add some color and animation,” he says. Through research, the city discovered Wibit, a company which provides aquatic sports parks. Within weeks after making contact with Wibit, the city entered into a three-year trial agreement to open WhoaZone at Whihala Beach in the summer of 2017.
The completed, assembled inflatable sports park was little more than an acre and only 100 feet from the beach. It’s secured and anchored in eight feet of water. The obstacle course of consists of slides, trampolines, monkey bars, balance beams, hurdles, and a wiggle bridge, which are just a few of its components.
Children must be at least seven years old, 45 inches tall, and must be able to swim. Life jackets are required and provided, and the layout includes four areas, varying in levels of difficulty. Entry to the water park is $20 per guest per hour. Additional water sports at WhoaZone include paddleboards, corcls, and kayaks.
Stahura admits the idea did not immediately resonate with many of his constituents. “Whiting’s a frugal town and people said, ‘no one is going to pay $20 an hour.’ Well, we proved that wrong.” Nearly 21,000 visited WhoaZone last summer, exceeding expectations. The overwhelming interest has led to an expansion of this year’s water park, which will increase the capacity from 120 guests to 150 per hour.
“And of course, everybody said ‘the lake’s just too rough,’ and I think that the technology and the way they (Wibit) set it up, proved that they could handle that,” Stahura adds. “It was an enormous success and we’re looking forward to the expansion,” he adds.
When out of towners arrived, and could not secure entrance, advance registration was added through their web site www.whoazonewhihala.com.
According to the agreement, Whiting will not see a profit directly from the water park until 2020. “They (Wibit) paid for the capital costs of the investment and they get to keep all the profits. After the third year, we’d start sharing revenue after they recoup their capital costs,” he explains.
Stahura says the $260,000 investment in capital costs, made by Wibit, led to more than $400,000 in revenue during its first summer. “There’s no cost to the city,” he says. “They (Wibit) handle all the transactions and all the employment,” he adds.
Wibit builds, manages, and maintains the water park. It provides lifeguards and hires up to 35 local high school and college students to work within the park. At the end of the season, the company disassembles the park and then rebuilds each year.
The mayor argues, Whiting is still benefiting from the water park. “We have seen a significant increase in parking revenue. It went up by 50 percent,” he says. Lakefront parking is $3 per hour or $15 for the day.
“We know the attraction added visitors to the lakefront, which we hope then equated to more revenue generated in the business district too. I’ve heard positive feedback from the merchants,” he says.
Stahura is pleasantly surprised by the age ranges of those visiting the attraction. “The really cool age group is the high school and college-aged kids. This is something excitedly new to them. Whether the water is cold or warm, doesn’t make a bit of difference to them,” he says.
“You see a couple old timers, like me, and they look a little more tired coming off than the young kids. But it is pretty cool to see the broad spectrum,” he says.