A historic beach, on the rebound: Spring Lake opens Saturday

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BURRILLVILLE –From it’s well-known “penny” arcade featuring games of old, to amenities and concessions with prices seemingly more suited to an equally long-gone era, Spring Lake Beach, in the 2018 season, remains a unique destination for affordable summer fun.

On Saturday, May 26 the facility will open at 10 a.m. to crowds of guests throwing down towels and chairs along a shoreline of clean white sand. In addition a rare arcade boasting  games from every decade since the 1920s, they’ll enjoy playground equipment; toys and games that can be signed out free of charge; a beach store for souvenirs; and activities like boats, a slide and paddle boards, rented for a steal. They’ll have access to clean restrooms with outdoor showers and a full time lifeguard on staff.

At a building by the entrance, a staff member will watch over the up-to-date facilities via security cameras, making sure the fun stays family-friendly and that guests follow beach policy. Manager Judy Lopez will be just one of many employees on the ready if there’s trouble of any kind.

A deck overlooking the water at Spring Lake awaits this season’s visitors.

“It’s a clean beach,” Lopez told NRI NOW this week. “Our biggest focus is on being affordable family fun.”

It wasn’t always this way. When Lopez took over management in 2015, the beach – which has been a popular destination for northern Rhode Islanders even prior to the early 1900s, when a trolley brought guests in from Woonsocket – had seen better days. Once a comprised of two privately-run facilities, the town purchased the first half of what is now known as Spring Lake Beach in 1989, and began leasing the northern end from the state of Rhode Island in 1991, eventually getting the deed in the year 2000.

But maintenance of the facilities was long overdue by the early part of the 2010s. With moldy-looking bathroom floors, crumbling buildings covered in chipping paint, and a reputation for attracting a somewhat mixed crowd, the beach had seen attendance begin to drop.

In early July of 2013, more than 80 visitors became sick after swimming, effectively closing Spring Lake for the 4th of July holiday. The cause was later found to be Shigella bacteria, typically spread from human feces.

Lopez had spent more than 20 years working at Spring Lake as the owner of Annabelle’s, a family business that ran the concession stands as an outside vendor. But by 2015, her kids had grown up and were no longer spending their summers working at the small restaurant. As she prepared to close the business, town officials asked if she’d be interested in beach management.

“I told them I would like to do it, but that I wanted to bring in a lot of new ideas,” she said.

Lopez’s first move was to change all of the rules and policies to make the beach more kid-friendly and encourage attendance by town residents. She gave the facilities themselves a complete makeover, painting walls and replacing out-dated equipment. Visitors returning in 2015 were greeted by a cleaner, friendlier beach with new umbrellas and picnic tables.

Lopez also brought in new activities including kayaks, boats, an inflatable water slide and a ping pong table. She created a beach store that adds to its stock each year, and has continued the improvements.

The changes have worked. Attendance at the beach has been way up over the past three years and the camps that run at the beach, Lopez notes, are full in 2018. Spring Lake’s private rental facility – Champlin Hall – is already booked for all but three days of the summer season.

Chaplin Hall

“For three years, we’ve done excellent here,” Lopez said. “It’s been a total turnaround.”

The one thing Lopez hasn’t changed are the costs. The beach manager notes that prices for hot dogs and hamburgers, $1.50 and $2.75 respectively, haven’t changed in 20 years. Kids boats are available for rent for just $2, and a half hour on a paddle board will run you just $6.

“We keep it affordable,” she said.

Asked how she can turn a profit at such low rates, Lopez points out that the concession stand is cranking out food, and the amenities are in use, virtually all day for the entire summer.

“The goal here is: keep the prices right, and people will spend,” she said. “People leave their coolers at home. At those prices, why wouldn’t you?”

It’s another formula that’s working: Spring Lake is entirely self-sufficient and receives no funding from the town.

The beach will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. for all of Memorial Day weekend. It will be open daily starting on Saturday, June 2 will remain open 7 days a week until Monday, Sept 3.

Between clean up and maintenance, that will mean 14 hour days for Lopez and her staff, creating lots of summer jobs. Lopez typically hires somewhere between 30-40 kids for part time positions for the season and she oversees tight, close knit crew.

“I run this with these kids as though it’s our family business. They work hard, and they know what they’re doing,” she said of her staff. “You get hired here at 16 and you’re not just a lifeguard, you take care of the whole place.”

Town officials. she notes, seem to know they picked the right person for the role.

“We’re very busy and they’re so happy with me,” she said. “I just love what I do.”

Admission to Spring Lake on opening day is free, and resident family passes will be available for purchase at a cost of $30 per family, or $20 for individuals. Passed include a permit for the resident lot. General admission costs $3 per person for Burrillville residents and $6 for non-residents.

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