Laredo: Jilted Once Too Often, Laredoans Opt to Build Their Own Water Park
Feature Photo (above): Families enjoying the Rock’N River Water Park in Round Rock. Image: Google Streets/Derrick Wooley, June 2017.
by Adolfo Pesquera
Laredo(Webb County)–One way or another, City Council has tried for 25 years to get a water park attraction only to be rejected time after time.
No more. City Council has directed city staff to prepare and issue a Request for Qualification for an aquatics company to design a water park comparable in scale to the Rock’N River Water Park in Round Rock. The municipally owned Rock’N River was originally constructed for $3 million and the city of Round Rock subsequently spent another $6 million to expand it.
A committee of Laredo staff and council members has spent several months visiting water parks and aquatic centers across the state of Texas, with a focus on municipally-owned water parks. Laredo’s Interim Co-City Manager Robert Eads told council during its Sept. 3 vote that staff will rely heavily on advice and data from Round Rock on how they’ve made their program successful.
Map of Rock’N River Water Park in Round Rock.
Other municipalities with water parks that were visited included Pharr, Canyon (The CAP! south of Amarillo), North Richland Hills and Grand Prairie. Committee member and Councilman Albert Torres Jr. began the discussion with a recall of Laredo’s frustrated efforts to date.
The issue has come before council five times over the past 25 years and despite every setback council members present and past are routinely approached by constituents asking about a water park.
The Sisters of Mercy provided some palliative relief from the heat this summer, when after years of fundraising and planning, they opened a mini water park–the 13,000-square-foot Sisters of Mercy Water Park at 2201 Zacatecas Street. However, Webb County has a population of about 280,000. Expectations are that the region should be able to scale up considerably more than that.
“We have gone through the private business venture for this, we’ve gone out for RFQs, I think, two or three times,” Torres said. “We really pursued this. However, the feedback from the private sector was–because of the local economy, the demographics, the income–it would be better that we build a municipal water park, instead of having a private investor come in and do some sort of tax abatement or land trade-off.”
A private water park would cost ten times the cost of a municipal water park and the difference in entrance fees makes a private venture unprofitable, he said.
Noel Valdez, the city’s bond counsel, reported that the venue sales tax revenue that was used to build the municipal arena (Sames Auto Arena) and the baseball stadium (Uni-Trade Stadium) can also be used to construct the water park, provided that water park is located on land adjacent to the ballpark. This is because voters approved a venue sales tax that included “related infrastructure” and “maintenance of operations.”
Fun Fact:Tecolotes De Los Dos Laredos, the Laredo baseball team, plays in a Mexican league. Half its home games are played in Laredo and the other half in Nuevo Laredo.
Valdez said the Legislature has allowed a broad interpretation of “related infrastructure” and “maintenance of operations” to include the design, construction and maintenance of a park.
Under those conditions, Laredo would be able to finance the design and construction without going for bond financing because there is already enough cash on hand from the venue sale tax to pay for a water park, Valdez said.
The lot that the baseball stadium sits on is about 40 acres. The stadium and parking occupies a little over 60 percent of that lot. There is enough vacant land south of the stadium for a water park, or at least enough to get one started.
The proposed water park would be located south of the Uni-Trade Stadium. City-owned project eligible lands are within the red boundaries. Image: Google Earth.
Councilman Marte Martinez, who also did visits as a member of the water park committee, said council’s approach would be cautious.
“We’re not trying to go out and build Schlitterbahn in the middle of Laredo. We’re trying to create something small, accessible, family friendly,” Martinez said. He referred again to Round Rock and how they started with a 6,000 visitor capacity park before expanding to 16,000 visitor capacity.
Aileen Ramos, director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau said that in discussions with water park industry experts, they found that the norm was to expand every three to five years.
“There is an expectation that … you increase the attraction. So once you start your water park, you need to be able to expand in that same location,” Ramos said.
Remy Salinas, a regular citizen speaker at council meetings, noted that during a previous RFQ effort he researched the topic extensively with the attitude that he would come armed to speak against such a venture. But during his research he came to the conclusion that municipally owned water parks can be profitable and that Laredo would be an ideal location.
North Richland Hills built the first municipal water park in Texas in 1995, the NRH2O Family Water Park, for $7 million, he said.
“Since that time, they’ve done $30 million of (additional) improvements, paid for by the water park, itself,” Salinas said. “The main thing for Laredo is not to think too small.”
Salinas said that NRH2O has remained profitable despite the fact that in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex it has since faced competition from newer, larger nearby water parks–Epic Waters Indoor Waterpark in Grand Prairie and the Great Wolf Lodge in Grapevine. By comparison, Laredo enjoys near year-round sunshine and is relatively isolated from the rest of Texas.
“There’s no reason in the world that Laredoans can’t have a world class water park,” Salinas said. “You all have been begging for an attraction. This is an attraction that the citizens want and I guarantee you the citizens are willing to pay for it.”
Salinas left the council with a cautionary comment. During his research, he also spoke with two aquatic design companies that passed on the last RFQ. They told him they didn’t respond because the RFQ language was ambiguous and confusing.
“The RFQ didn’t have a focus where they could decide (whether) they could help.”
The RFQ, he added, did not provide an estimated budget. And without a ballpark number, they had no beginning point, he said.
Uni-Trade Stadium. The proposed water park would be built next to it. Image: Google Streets.
Adolfo Pesquera (Reporter/Editor) is a veteran news journalist. He has worked for Hearst Corp., American Lawyer Media, News Corp and Freedom Communications. His work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the USA. He is a journalism graduate of UT-RGV. He writes, edits and creates digital pages for VBX.