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Wednesday, July 2, 2008 04:39 pm

On the beach

The city pledges that Lake Springfield Beach will be back one day, better than ever

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Nearly 35 years ago, a young Frank Edwards stood watch over Springfield Beach.

As one of the summertime spot’s lifeguards, he surveyed activity in the pool — an enclosed area about the size of two city blocks — and scrutinized action on the high dive and slides. He watched hungry beach-goers flock to the full-service café inside the beach house and the action-oriented engage in sand-volleyball tournaments.

When Edwards remembers those days now, one thing comes to mind: It was busy.

But after decades of poor attendance and in-the-red budgets, the high dive and slides were disassembled. The restaurant was shut down. And now, since City Water, Light & Power announced in May that the beach would remain closed this summer, the swimmers and sunbathers also have disappeared.

Edwards, who represents Ward 1 on the City Council, immediately protested the decision. Removing the fun stuff that attracted crowds to the beach, he says, led to lower turnouts.

“These things have been faded out and taken away,” he says. “If you want attendance, you maintain, you add to — you don’t take away.”

Todd Renfrow, CWLP’s general manager, agrees and contends that the beach closure isn’t permanent. The public utility, he says, plans to spend the next year evaluating and possibly beefing up services for the 2009 season.

A look at the beach’s rough-and-tumble history — from an almost total absence of profit in 73 years to an unprecedented damage award and an unusual bacterial outbreak — indicates that Springfieldians haven’t seen the demise of the once-popular city institution quite yet.

In the beginning it was called a “bathing” beach, its bathhouse “a model of convenience.” Opened in July 1935, Lake Springfield Beach boasted state-of-the-art powder rooms, shower areas, and a viewing veranda shaded by overhead umbrellas. The cost of admission was 10 cents before 6 p.m. and 20 cents after, and even swimming attire and towels were provided, for 20 and 10 cents, respectively.

At the same time, other outdoor areas — including fishing piers, public parks, and a wildlife sanctuary — opened, putting Lake Springfield on the map as one of the nation’s first water-supply reservoirs to allow recreational activities.

A few weeks later, a second bathing beach was opened, this one on the south side of the lake, immediately east of Route 66, for the “colored people.” Bridgeview Beach, as it was later named, didn’t have the same amenities as Lake Park Beach; instead, a camp building was converted into a beach house and a safety line was placed in the water in lieu of a sea wall.

Juanita Barton, 83, remembers the days when her family was turned away from the whites-only beach because of their skin color. But the blacks-only beach wasn’t a safe haven from racists, either. Before desegregation, many black residents were afraid to go to Bridgeview Beach because police officers watched them swim and called them names. Her family went anyway, but that ugly memory lingers.

“It’s not a five-minute experience,” she says, tearing up. “It’s one that you live, and live, and live.”

Both beaches initially prospered, but by the early 1940s they had began to lose money. In 1953, a shortage of lifeguards — most 18-year-olds were in the armed forces or employed at the time — and funds threatened the beaches’ opening. According to newspaper accounts, the expense of operating Lake Park Beach in 1952 was $6,229.40, but revenue totaled just $4,998.53. Bridgeview Beach’s figures were more dismal still, with operating expenses at $1,002.58 and incoming revenue a mere $80.03.

The murky financial situation worsened in the ’50s. The 1953 operation of both beaches resulted in a nearly $18,000 loss for CWLP; coincidentally, the beaches were closed the next season because of low lake levels. After two idle years and additional expenses for their revival, Lake Park Beach and Bridgeview Beach were visited by more than 61,000 people but incurred a $12,000 loss.

Over the next 20 years city officials publicized weekend bus service from downtown to Lake Park Beach, created family season tickets and “family swim days,” reduced adult admission fees from 50 to 25 cents after 6 p.m., offered free swim and lifesaving lessons, inaugurated free beach days, and chlorinated the beach pool, all in the hope of encouraging attendance and boosting revenue.

At first these efforts met with little success. In June 1972, the city termed Bridgeview Beach a “money loser” and announced that it would be closed. The beach — which had been desegregated since 1952 — cost more than $37,000 to operate during 1971 but only raked in $286 in admission fees. Lake Park Beach was kept open, even though it experienced a greater loss. It cost more than $78,000 to operate but only earned $16,146.

The real deal-breaker for Lake Park Beach may have been a lawsuit filed by a man named Robert Sherman of Oak Ridge, Tenn. Sherman claimed that his 17-year-old son William struck an exposed pipe when he dived into the water at the beach in June 1964. He was permanently paralyzed from the chest down. In January 1968, Sherman sued the city for $1 million, and the jury returned what was then the largest judgment in the history of Sangamon County — $319,000. The City Council appealed the next year, but the appellate court upheld the jury’s decision.

Although Lake Springfield Beach is closed for the year, the beach house is still available for private-party rentals.
PHOTO BY DAVE JANES

It might’ve been the closure of Bridgeview Beach, publicity for Lake Park Beach, or people staying in town to save money, but, whatever the reason, city officials noted that things started to look up in 1973. Attendance increased by 35 percent and continued to climb. In 1975 more than 20,000 beachgoers hit the waves, and by the first month in 1976 more than 12,000 had already traveled through the gates at the newly rechristened Lake Springfield Beach.

After so many years of wear and tear, CWLP decided to renovate the Lake Springfield beach house for the first time since its opening. The 40-year-old structure no longer met city electrical and plumbing codes, needed mechanical and aesthetic updates, and required replacement of the pool’s chlorination system.

In February 1977 the City Council filed two ordinances that would bring both the Lake Springfield beach house and the former Bridgeview Beach area — now a campground — into compliance with state health standards. The council hired Brown Engineers for $35,000 to design renovation plans for the Lake Springfield beach house and requested $320,000 in federal grants to finance the full project. Ralph Hahn & Associates was hired for $15,600 to design plans for the Bridgeview area; the company’s primary goal was to get new water and sewer lines to keep campers from dumping waste into the lake.

Even though CWLP hadn’t received final word on the grants, according to newspaper accounts, the utility let contracts for the projects and scheduled the completion date for the following summer. The city ran into trouble in October, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development refused to release the funds, stating that the project didn’t meet grant guidelines. After a site inspection, HUD concluded that Lake Springfield Beach was too far from the city to benefit low- and moderate-income families.

City officials argued that the project had received tentative approval in June, but HUD maintained that the city had erred in letting a contract to Alzina Construction Co. in September, before the site inspection or the funds release. After considerable public outcry and the city’s threat to sue, HUD reversed its decision in November, conceding that a four-month wait on the decision was beyond the legal limit.

When the Lake Springfield Beach project was finished, in 1978, city officials hailed its new structure and chlorination system, which they said gave the water a “cleaner, greener appearance.”
The area’s new façade seemed to produce additional interest; nearly 18,000 patrons used the facility during its first month of service.

Lake Springfield Beach has continued on its rocky road over the past 10 years, persevering as one of the area’s oldest summertime destinations.

In 1998, after the annual Ironhorse Triathlon, at least 98 competitors and another 248 recreational lake users came down with the flulike symptoms of leptospirosis — a disease caused by a bacterium that is normally excreted in the urine of animals and found in tropical waters. At the time it was the largest epidemic of its kind in U.S. history, but researchers and doctors had trouble pinpointing a cause. Some blamed sewage or farm animals around the lake; others were convinced that sewer rats had ignited the outbreak.

Lake Park Beach, in 1938

In an unprecedented move, CWLP restricted swimming in the lake and closed the beach for the season. The utility began testing for Escherichia coli bacteria, another waterborne cause of disease, every four days at different locations around the lake. The Illinois Department of Public Health recommended closing Lake Springfield Beach when E. coli levels were higher than 235 cfu (colony forming units) per 100 milliliters of water, which has occurred regularly since 1998.

In June 2001, readings at one end of the lake soared to 6,010, and in May and June 2002 they were still as high as 2,419. Since the summer of 2005 the beach has been closed at least five days each season as a result of bad water samples. The utility maintains that increases in the E. coli count are a result of heavy rains that wash bacteria from the land into the lake.

Although the beach was still popular into the late ’90s, attendance and revenue began declining in the next decade. After Mayor Tim Davlin took office, in 2003, Renfrow received permission from the City Council to operate the beach independently and made the decision to stop charging admission. The move, coupled with promotions and the reinstatement of a food vendor, revitalized Lake Springfield Beach for the season. In 2004 the beach had just over 4,000 swimmers, but 2005 brought more than 20,000.

Jeremy Bonnett, program director at the Nelson Center, began taking summer camp groups to Lake Springfield Beach shortly after he started at the center in 2000. Even though Nelson Center has its own pool and the kids could swim everyday, he says, it was beneficial for them to get out of the facility and go to the park for a day.

“It was a fun change for kids to go somewhere else,” Bonnett says.

But things began to go downhill in 2006 and in July 2007, after 16-year-old Eric Jones drowned, the utility closed the beach early. In May, after the utility investigated bacteria counts, attendance figures, and the necessary facility repairs, Renfrow says, it seemed to be in the best interest of the city to go without Lake Springfield Beach for one more year.

“I think this year would have been a disaster, quite frankly, with all of the storms we had,” Renfrow said. “There would be hardly any day up until now that we’d be open.”

CWLP is discussing several improvements, including removal of the sea wall. Renfrow says it’s a toss-up: If the sea wall is taken down, the utility won’t need to chlorinate, but the lack of a sea wall could pose a safety issue. Boats tend to come in close to the beach, he explains, and the sea wall protects swimmers; a buoy line might not suffice.

There’s also talk of establishing a swim-at-your-own risk policy instead of employing lifeguards. As far as he knows, Renfrow says, Lake Springfield Beach is one of the only public facilities in Illinois that’s enclosed and also one of the few staffed by lifeguards.

Other ideas in the works include reestablishing bus transportation so that more Springfieldians can travel to the beach without worrying about the cost of gas and ridding the area of pesky geese that sully the sand and water.

“We are going to take the opportunity this year to step back, see what it needs, and make the repairs,” Renfrow says, “then we’re going to look for make-or-break next year. We have to see whether it’s going to be used.”

Despite CWLP’s reasoning, Edwards and several other aldermen were upset with the decision, especially since the water department recently passed an 80.2 percent rate increase and the idea of closing the beach didn’t surface during budget discussions.

“I think if we had this discussion during the budget cycle instead of after the budget cycle,” Edwards says, “the beach wouldn’t be closed today. The aldermen would’ve said that it’s unacceptable.”

Edwards calls the closure of the beach a “quality-of-life issue.” As gas prices continue to increase, area residents are staying closer to home and deserve inexpensive, outdoor activities. Not everyone can afford to join a lake club, he says, and the beach offers a facility for recreation that, in essence, Springfieldians fund.

Ward 2 Ald. Gail Simpson, another proponent of reopening the beach, says she understands the need to make repairs and keep people safe but still feels that the issue shouldn’t be put to rest.

She says, “I don’t want anything to put the city in jeopardy — we can ill afford to pay any lawsuits — but we need to find a way to open up the beach, if only for a couple of days a week, or something.”

Although Lake Springfield Beach is closed to the public, the beach house can still be rented for private parties. The current rental and cleanup fees are much lower than others in the area, Renfrow says, so an additional change might involve increasing the fees to boost revenue.

Improvements to the beach will be funded in the fiscal year 2010 budget, he says.

Historical information was provided by the Sangamon Valley Collection of Lincoln Library.

Contact Amanda Robert at arobert@illinoistimes.com

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