The six-member Liljenquist clan arrived at Shadle Aquatic Center a half-hour before open swim began Monday afternoon, anticipating the crowds for a day of free swimming. As his older siblings splashed in deeper waters, 3-year-old Marcus bounced in the shallows near his mom, Teresa, who pointed a digital camera in his direction.
“He wants to go down the slides and off the diving board, but they won’t let him,” Teresa said as Marcus, goggled and grinning, ran up and embraced her legs.
The Liljenquists were just a few of the many families taking part in the city pools’ Free Swim Day promotion Monday, as entry fees were waived throughout town. The event kicked off the final week of summer pool hours – except for the Witter Aquatic Center on East Mission Avenue, which is open until Sept. 6 – for the Spokane Parks department, which is still in the process of gauging public reaction to entry fees instituted in 2008 and doubled before the 2011 season. Admission regularly costs $2 for visitors age 4 to 17, and $4 for those age 18 to 64. Children under 3 and swimmers 65 and over enter free all season long.
A few cool and rainy weeks at the beginning of the season, which kicked off June 17, hurt early sales, said Carl Strong, supervisor of the city’s pools. During the first two weeks of summer, attendance was around 2,000 visitors citywide, down from around 10,000 people during the same period last year.
“We started off extremely slow this summer,” Strong said.
Attendance has leveled off, however, with the exception of rental and swim-team numbers, which are down around 25 percent compared with 2012, he said.
But attendance was not an issue Monday, as Taco Bell footed the bill for area swimmers to stream through the gates. Free days started shortly after entry fees were proposed, Strong said, and donors for other free events at specific pools this year were sponsored by the Spokane Firefighters Union and Spokane Central Lions Club.
At Hillyard, children’s heads bobbed in the aquatic center’s whirlpool as shrieks and lifeguard whistle blows pierced the quiet of a warm summer afternoon. Five-year-old Sarah Abrahamson stood on her tiptoes next to her dad, Mike, with her nose pointed upward into the air in the 3 ½ feet of water.
By 1:30 p.m., just a half hour after the gates opened, 235 visitors had already arrived at Hillyard. Across town at Shadle Park, the crowd was even larger, quickly reaching its 350-person capacity. The sidewalk in front of the pool resembled the line in front of a nightclub, with visitors allowed to enter on a one-in, one-out policy. Some forfeited hopes of swimming at Shadle and left for other area pools.
Kicking back with their legs dangling in the water, University High School math teachers Tammy Anderberg and Malea Cook took in the sights of running, playing children as their own swam nearby.
“It reminds me we get to go back to this soon,” Anderberg said.
The Liljenquists, including Rachel, 15; Devin, 13; Kallie, 11; and Jarom, 9; huddled nearby after an afternoon spent racing down the waterslides and playing hide-and-seek among other pool-goers. Devin claimed to be the speedster on the slides, with his siblings reluctantly agreeing.
“I beat him, like, one time,” Jarom said. Teresa Liljenquist is just happy to have one more carefree afternoon before school starts.
“It gets so busy,” she said.
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