SplashDown has been shut down indefinitely until its stair tower is repaired and Columbia Association officials are mulling over when to fix it — or if it should be fixed at all.
The facility's two water slides are part of the Columbia Swim Center in the Wilde Lake village center. The flumes, which last operated in May, were scheduled to reopen Saturday, Sept. 17.
But an August safety inspection revealed significant structural issues in the tower, in particular the steel beams that support the tower and also the steel pans that hold the concrete stairs, according to Rob Goldman, Columbia Association's chief operating officer. The indoor stairway brings people up four stories to the flumes.
Three support columns are rusted at their bases and "must be repaired to ensure the structural stability of the tower," Hunt Valley-based Century Engineering inspectors concluded. The stair pans have "bulging, cracking and scaling due to rust," and in some cases "there is significant section loss of the steel," the inspectors said.
The necessary repair work will cost $120,000, Goldman said.
SplashDown has been inspected annually for about the past four years, ever since an engineering survey found deficiencies in the tower and the two flumes. Facing declining attendance and the possibility of a larger water park being built in Anne Arundel County — it has not been built — the CA board at the time chose to make the minimal amount of repairs to the stairs and tubes that would keep the facility running safely, Goldman said.
"What they'd (engineers) recommended four years ago was to completely redo the whole stairway. We didn't do that and each year we saw more and more deterioration," Goldman said.
Although the flumes are still safe, reports show that the tubes, which date to SplashDown's 1986 opening, will need to be replaced within a couple of years. That will cost about $250,000, Goldman said.
The CA board has not yet discussed what to do about repairing the stair tower.
Gregg Schwind, who represents Hickory Ridge, said he hopes his fellow board members fund the repairs immediately so SplashDown can open "as soon as possible."
"SplashDown is a unique and very special amenity that CA offers," he said. "And I think we should offer it this year as well."
Cynthia Coyle, of Harper's Choice, however, said the board should wait for the results of CA's aquatics master plan process, which is incorporating feedback from residents to help decide what improvements and changes to make to the association's pools.
"At this moment in time I do not want to put any repair money into SplashDown until I see what the plan says," Coyle said. "I want to see what the community has to say. We know there's a demand for SplashDown. But the demand may be even greater for something more, rather than just SplashDown."
Two master plan public workshops are scheduled for October. CA staff are looking to have the master plan completed by the end of the year, Goldman said.
Business at SplashDown has dropped over the years, Goldman said. Open to the public solely on Saturdays and Sundays, Goldman said it used to book 60 birthday parties a weekend; now it does eight to 10.
The facility is expensive to operate, requiring 12 to 14 staff members to run it, and does not make a profit.
Schwind said the aquatics master plan is the right forum to develop a long-term plan for SplashDown, but waiting for the plan could keep the attraction closed in the interim.
"Just knowing how things operate at CA and how long things take, it could be a period of years before we decide what to do about any facility as part of that master plan," he said. "If you take a look at the time it's taken for us to do things like dredge a lake or just go forward with a plan for a new clubhouse at Hobbit's Glen, every major project we undertake takes years."
Waiting for the master plan process to figure out what to do and then to do it, he said, is "effectively closing SplashDown for the next two or three or more years, and that to me is unacceptable."
Coyle also doesn't want there to be a prolonged period in which Columbia is without this kind of facility.
"If we're told what they want is this really grand expensive building with a lot of features, and we don't predict that happening in the next five years, then I'm willing to put $120,000 in to repair it," Coyle said. "Because I want to keep something in place for the next five-year period."