WESTERLY — Forty years of slipping, sliding, and splashing is set to come to an end in September when the owner of Water Wizz of Westerly says he will close his business for good.
Mike Kells, whose family has owned the Atlantic Avenue fun spot since 1981, said the seasonal business is simply not producing enough revenue. "I love my job but I'm ready for the next chapter," Kells said during an interview on Wednesday.
The signs of a seasonal small business struggling had been there for awhile. About three years ago, Kells said, he expended what remained of the business' "rainy day fund" reserves. Although Superstorm Sandy struck more than six years ago, he said the business never overcame the out-of-pocket cost required to rebuild after the storm devastated the mechanical heart of the operation — the water pumps and piping.
Altogether, he said, the business spent about $60,000 to repair the pumps, which were not covered by flood insurance because they were deemed to be at basement level despite their positioning above ground level. "We might forget about Superstorm Sandy now but the residual, over time, it slowly ate away at me."
The storm, coupled with bad weather in a few summers, made for a greater challenge. "I kept thinking next summer I'll get ahead, next summer I'll get ahead, but it hasn't happened," Kells said, adding that he reduced his own pay by 70 percent over the last four years. "Things basically came to a head."
He made the sacrifice and stuck around hoping the tide would turn, he said, swayed and invigorated by the many customers who came back year after year with stories of how they visited the water slides as children and now bring their children or grandchildren. "It's generational," Kells said.
Water Wizz has provided afternoons of carefree fun to thousands and summer jobs to hundreds. Many of the staff members forged lasting bonds. For instance, Ken Rider's first job ever was at Water Wizz when he was 14. He's come back every summer and now, at 41, manages many of the business operations. His non-summer job is as a high school teacher in Monroe, Conn. Kells was a member of Rider's wedding party. Rider's own two children are frequent visitors to the slides.
"When you come to Water Wizz, it's not a job it's family," Kells said.
Josh Behan was 16 years old and a Chariho High School student when he went to work at Water Wizz and met his future wife, Amanda, who was a Westerly High School student at the time. "I loved the place ... after working there and bringing my own kids there I definitely have a sense of nostalgia," Behan said.
Behan has maintained a friendship with Rider over the years and has seen him a lot this summer during stops to the water slides with his two children. "It was the coolest job in the world. Even though the pay wasn't that much it seemed great," he said.
Caswell Cooke, Misquamicut Business Association executive director, said the absence of Water Wizz will leave a void. "It's obviously an iconic place and people have a real connection with it," he said.
When giving directions, Cooke said, he often uses the Water Wizz as a reference point. "It's one of the things you can see from a distance and it's in all of our videos," said Cooke, whose wife, Christine, worked at Water Wizz in the 1980s.
Cooke praised Mike Kells and his mother, Patricia. "They're a great family and have been great supporters of the MBA and good neighbors to Misquamicut. They will be greatly missed. A lot of people include going to the water slides when they visit Misquamicut."
Patricia and Raymond Kells, Mike's father, bought Water Wizz from Art Phillips, who opened the slides in 1979. Mike and his sisters Rebecca, Melissa, and Melanie, all worked at the slides with their parents. Water Wizz grew to six slides when Raymond Kells added two speed slides in 1985.
Water Wizz has even been in the movies — in scenes from the Steve Carell film, "Dan in Real Life." Mike Kells had breakfast with Carell during the shooting in Misquamicut.
Kells said he worries that other small businesses in Misquamicut may face the same challenges he took on. As Misquamicut property owners convert to full-time residences from summer rental cottages, Kells said, the turnover of people frequenting the businesses has slowed. Additionally, he said, the prospect of a $15 minimum wage presents an additional challenge. Some states, he said, allow for seasonal wage standards that are exempt from regular wage laws, but not Rhode Island.
Kells thanked the MBA and the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, particularly its president, Lisa Konicki, for their support. Konicki, he said, was particularly helpful in helping securing funds that were raised to help Misquamicut businesses rebuild after Superstorm Sandy. He also thanked the Trefes family; family members are the landlords.
Rider said some of his best and longest lasting friendships started at Water Wizz. "I feel truly fortunate to have been a part of something that has brought joy not only to my own kids but so many others," he said.