A couple of times each summer, 25-year-old Shida Simmons takes a day off work and spends it with her sister at Charleston County’s water park.
They usually run into someone they know, or Sharanda, 14, meets someone in line who wants to race down the water slide or bob around in the wave pool.
“One of our favorite things to do in the summer is go to the water park,” said Sharanda Simmons, whose older sister taught her to swim and shares her love of the water. “It’s a really fun way to hang out.”
Richland County wants to join in the fun.
Next month, county officials will begin to work out details on how to go about building the biggest water park in South Carolina, with a proposal for a $20 million park in northeast Richland – envisioned as the first county-owned, suburban attraction using proceeds from the 10-year-old restaurant meal tax.
In a push by rural and suburban council members, the county is looking at creating two tourist-related destinations outside the city center. The proposal by Councilman Torrey Rush for a water park has gained momentum; his colleagues say they’re impressed by his thorough research into its feasibility.
The county is advertising for a company to design, build, operate and maintain a water park on 200 acres of county-owned land in Rush’s district near I-77, at Hard Scrabble and Farrow roads. And while many details have yet to be worked out, the council has discussed taking out a 30-year loan against future proceeds from the tax on prepared meals, also known as the hospitality tax or H-tax. The 2-cents-on-the-dollar tax, designed to stimulate tourism, generates about $5 million a year for Richland County.
Rush said the idea would be to convince out-of-town visitors to Riverbanks Zoo, for example, to spend an extra day in Columbia – at the county water park. Local families would use the water park, too.
Over the past 20 years, the Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission has opened three water parks catering to both locals and tourists.
The profitable Whirlin’ Waters, in North Charleston, is the largest, drawing 150,000 to 160,000 visitors a year, many of them church or day-care groups on day trips from Columbia, Orangeburg, Greenville and Beaufort, parks director Phil Macchia said.
The park – which has produced a profit from the beginning – generates $2.3 million to $2.4 million a year, he said. Expenses run $1.3 million to $1.4 million a year.
But Richland County is looking to out-do Charleston County’s water parks along with others in the state, among them a corporate-owned park in Myrtle Beach and a YMCA-run park in Orangeburg County.
In a field measured by the number of attractions, that would mean Richland County’s park would offer more than the six-lane racer slide, large-scale wave pool, tube slides, interactive play equipment, kiddie splash pad and lazy river that attracted hundreds of people to Whirlin’ Waters last week.
Richland County also envisions something closer to a year-round park. Some of the attractions consultants mentioned that could be paired with a water park include a zip line with towers, ropes course, rock-climbing wall, miniature golf, go-cart track or ultimate disc course.
None of that has been decided yet.
But Richland County officials know they want to make a splash with the first major project embarked upon with its H-tax funds.
‘There’s a lot to do’
At Whirlin’ Waters on a sunny August day, it was all about getting wet and saving money.
Most days, general admission is $19.99. But it was 2-for-1 Tuesday.
Kevin Gillner was waiting in the shade to snap a photo of kids racing down a slippery wet slide, head-first, on blue mats.
“It’s nice that they have big-kid things and small-kid things,” said Gillner, who had family visiting from Pennsylvania and was keeping an eye on six children, aged 4 to 12.
At the end of the slide was a teenager with a whistle on a lifeguard stand, one of 100 part-time lifeguards hired for Whirlin’ Waters each summer. Another 60 part-timers work in food service, with 20 more in guest services.
Park manager Edmonds Brown said three full-time employees plus a couple of part-timers are devoted to maintenance of the water park “to keep the pumps running, the water flowing.” He said every employee is expected to pick up trash at the park, which cost $14.2 million to build in 2000.
Sure enough, there was no trash among the islands landscaped with canna lilies, crepe myrtles and palm trees.
Cordelia and James Grant lounged under a bright blue cabana, facing the wave pool that serves as the anchor of the park.
The pool, which can accommodate 4,000 people, produces waves that come from the 6-foot deep end of the tiled pool and lap toward a man-made shore at the other end, just 3-inches deep. Children in life vests, teens on inner tubes and babies held by cooing grandmothers bobbed in the water, waiting for a horn to sound – a signal the waves were about to begin.
The Grants, who live in nearby Goose Creek, sat among people reading paperbacks and slathering on sunscreen. Their 12-year-old son walked by with a friend. The Grants said they feel comfortable; the park is safe.
“They love the water. They love the outdoors,” Cordelia Grant said. “There’s a lot to do.”
Across the way, a crowd congregated around a three-story “tree house” topped by a huge bucket. Among them was a young woman using a wheelchair, grinning as she splashed through shallow water.
Tracey Floyd of Sumter watched as the bucket slowly filled with water, then tipped and spilled in a waterfall generating screams and yells.
“This is just awesome,” Floyd said. “I want one of these in my backyard. I don’t even need a pool.”
Interest seems high
On Sept. 18, officials will open proposals by firms willing to compete for a contract to build a water park for Richland County.
The idea is for the county to build the park and for the company running it to repay the loan with proceeds from the park, sharing in the profits as well.
Four council members and three staff members traveled to Austin and Dallas, Texas, earlier this summer to look at water parks owned by Hawaiian Falls Waterparks.
While there, they also visited an indoor sports arena like one Councilman Kelvin Washington is pitching for Bluff Road. The county is in the midst of an environmental assessment of 84 acres owned by Bible Way Church of Atlas Road.
Neither project has won a vote of approval by the 11-member council, but the concept of a water park seems to be generating broad interest.
“I’m at a point where I’m committed to trying to make it happen,” said Councilman Paul Livingston, who joined Rush, Washington and Councilman Damon Jeter on the Texas trip. “I think it could be good for the county and a good way to spend hospitality dollars.”
Rush said he’s been to water parks on family vacations, too, so he knew what to expect. “It was a blast.”