Municipal Rec Programs: Activities Vary Depending on the Community

(from Maine Townsman, June 2005)
By Lee Burnett, Freelance Writer

It used to be that the job of a recreation director in Maine was confined to running a summer day camp, providing administrative support for youth sports leagues, and holding a set of keys to a school gymnasium.

Nowadays, those traditional duties only begin to describe the variety of activities that recreation directors involve themselves with. The job has expanded to include such responsibilities as organizing field trips, holiday celebrations and activities for school vacation weeks. In some cases, recreation directors are involved in adult education enrichment classes, tourism promotion, housing development impact fees and park planning. Non-traditional sports programs are growing and may include sailing, golf, and adventure sports. The clientele has also expanded to include not just active, sports-minded kids, but latch-key kids, seniors, and kids struggling with obesity.

The job “depends on the attributes of each community,” says Doug Beck of Monmouth, president of the Maine Recreation and Parks Association, the states professional association of municipal recreation directors. The job is “so much more” than it once was, he said.

In the smallest towns, a recreation director may be a part-time position filled by a locally famous athelete working with a volunteer committee. The primary role at this level may be coordinating schedules, training and officiation in youth sports leagues. Along the continuum that generally follows community size are full-time directors and a volunteer staffers, and full time directors working with a full-time staff.

Beck believes misconceptions persist about the role of recreation directors. “There’s a view that recreation and parks are not essential services,” he said. In this view, recreation should not be supported by tax dollars and that any provider who does something similar is adequate.

He said this view is outdated “especially in this day and age of where there are so many health issues and our sedentary life style.”

The cost of not funding recreation services is much greater. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he said.

Some communities have put their recreation department under the wing of the public works department, which Beck said usually does not work well.

“Typically, the needs of parks are more detail oriented than public works can provide,” he said. “Park maintenance is critical in making sure the facilities are there for the programs.” Portland tried moving parks and recreation into public works department then switched them back, he said.

Programs for Seniors

The traditional picture of a recreation director “sitting in a gym tossing out volley balls” is getting more and more outdated in South Portland, where construction of a community center five years ago created opportunities to serve an older kind of recreation-minded citizen.

“We’ve always had senior programs in the recreation department,” said Bill Cary, S.P. recreation superintendent. “But in the last five years, they’ve expanded primarily because of the center.”

The community center contains a swimming pool, basketball court, indoor jogging path, exercise room, teen game room, meeting rooms, function rooms, and classroom space.

“Lots of older folk came to the community center to use the indoor walking track and while they were there, they were looking for something else to do – painting classes, computers for seniors,” said Cary.

Other activities specifically geared to seniors include line dancing, movies, book clubs, beano, and sponsorship of trips. Programs have evolved through trial and error, not based on any formal surveys. “Some are more succesful than others,” he said. “One of the more popular things we do is an exercise program,” he said.

“We’re now seeing a different type of senior, people who want to be a little more active. We’ve got 50-year-olds still playing competitive softball, biking, roller blading.”

Enterprise Fund Activities

The mantra heard with increasing frequency these days is that recreation programs should “pay for themselves,” that is they should be funded by user fees, not tax dollars. Recreation programs can even generate profits, but only if a community is willing to make a substantial investment and take a risk, neither of which seems to be popular these days.

Attitudes were different back in the 1960s when the City of Bangor decided to build a golf course in what was then the flight path of Dow Air Force Base. The city owned land and “it wasn’t a great area to build houses,” explained Brian Enman, current golf pro at Bangor Muni.

Bangor also had an indefatigable golf promoter in Austin Kelly, the first pro at the course when it opened in 1964. “In the beginning, it wasn’t self-supporting,” said city Finance Director Debbie Cyr. “But with the popularity of golf and the improvements made over the years, it became self sufficient.”

What started out as public-spirited effort to introduce golf to the masses gradually began paying big dividends. This year, the golf course is expected to generate $130,000 over expenses, a profit that by city council policy is divided evenly between the golf course and other city recreation programs. The city puts its share toward debt service on 20-year bonds floated three years ago to finance a $622,000 expansion of the Sawyer Arena hockey rink.

Any city-owned asset – such as an airport or a sewage treatment plant – that generates income is called an enterprise fund. Maine communities with municipally-owned golf courses, addition to Bangor, include Portland, South Portland, Cumberland, Carrabassett Valley and Dexter. Outside of Maine, municipally-owned golf courses are quite common.

“Everyone wants to reduce taxes, so it’s an easy thing to look to the golf course for money,” says Bangor’s Cyr. “But I’ll tell you now, we also have a lot of golfers and they very definitely want to keep it ... so investments are made in the course.”

Municipal investments in recreation can generate dollars beyond the city treasury.

Camden owns a ski area and there are a number of municipally-owned ice arenas.

Caribou’s recreation department has played a large and continuing role in transforming snowmobiling in Aroostook County from a recreational activity for local folks into a tourism draw. The city has invested significant sums in infrastructure – acquiring abandoned railroad beds and trail grooming equipment. It has also provided organizational leadership to the smattering of volunteer clubs that handle trail maintenance. “We took a bold stand,” said Kathy Mazzuchelli, Caribou’s indefatigable director of recreation. “The municipality realized [the investment in] infrastructure was creating not just community opportunities, but regional opportunities and destination point opportunities for people who like to explore Maine without the crowds.” She continued: “snowmobiling is a significant economic activity during what would normally be a slow season. Working with the Caribou Chamber of Commerce and Aroostook County tourism, it has really just taken off.”

It began in the late 1980s with the purchase of 18.5 miles of abandoned railroad bed once owned by the Aroostook Valley Railroad, the first rail line acquired with money from the Land for Maine’s Future. It was not easy overcoming resistance to permanent recreational access through prime agricultural land and Mazzuchelli describes a “tremendous legal road.” Since then, “a little more than 100 miles” of abandoned railroad lines have been acquired and incorporated into the statewide ITS trail system. Caribou is a hub for a 2,200 mile network of private and public snowmobile trails throughout Aroostook County and neighboring New Brunswick.

Perhaps more significant than the acquisition of abandoned railroad lines was the development of a novel arrangement with private clubs to ensure dependable riding conditions. Snowmobile trail maintenance has always been done by volunteers (though clubs do receive a stipend derived from snowmobile registration fees), but the quality varies from club to club.

“We recognize the volatility of clubs,” said Mazzuchelli.

Caribou responded by purchasing not one, but two trail grooming machines. not an insignificant investment as each costs $130,000. But operating the equipment was beyond the resources of the five-person recreation department. The clubs operate the equipment with expenses paid for through state grants.

“We work with clubs to secure trail maintenance. It’s kind of unique,” said Mazzuchelli. All the clubs in the area have since “gone to the big machines,” and she estimates there are now 20 such trail groomers throughout the county.

Evidence that all this investment was worthwhile came from a recent economic impact study conducted by the Muskie Institute at the University of Southern Maine, said Mazzuchelli.

“During a 12-week season, snowmobiling is able to generate $3.5 to $4 million to the local economy just in the Caribou area,” said Mazzuchelli.

Expanding on snowmobiling’s success, folks in Aroostook County are now trying to promote ATV use and mountain biking.

After-school Programs

Every day after school in Brewer, a school bus deposits close to 100 children at the Brewer Auditorium, a community center next to playing fields and an outdoor swimming pool.

“This is one of the first in the area,” said Recreation Director Ken Hanscom. said. “When they started out, it was very small maybe 15 or 20 kids.”

That was back in 1986 when the program was primarily for elementary school children. Since then, “we saw the need to expand to middle school,” he said. At the auditorium, kids can play any of 75 different organized games in the gym, use outdoor playing fields, use computers or do homework, he said.

“The after-school program seems to be our most popular,” he said. There’s a one to two month waiting list to get into the after-school program.

One of the ingredients of success is the bus transportation provided from school. The cost for the 2 to 5:30 p.m. program is $8 per day. The program may be incorrectly viewed as convenient day care by parents grateful for a place to plant their kids while they’re still at work, but Hansom said the staff takes the program as seriously as any recreation program.

“It is not a daycare. It’s a recreation program,” he said. Hanson says that he hopes they want to be here. He says the recreation staff tries to make it the place to be through the variety of activities and the enthusiasm of the staff.

He said the after school program generates $35,000 above expenses and the entire recreation department is 78 percent self-supporting.

Even cash-strapped communities are finding ways to expand opportunities. Gray’s recreation department has two full-time positions and they are out straight organizing leagues, camps and clinics, staffing a town-beach and a community center open day and night. Given the town’s financial constraints, Recreation Director Dean Bennett has difficulty doing anything new unless an energetic volunteer is willing to take the initiative. Then Bennett heard about Healthy Hometowns, a subsidized recreational cross-country ski program offered through the nearby Pineland Center. The program offers coaches training, instruction and rental skis for the season for $40 per participant.

“When I heard about it, I jumped right on it,” said Bennett. “We were kind of lacking in the variety of winter activities. We have basketball and indoor soccer.”

Bennett was particularly interested in an activity that might appeal to children not doing organized sports. The first season it was offered to kids at the elementary school located across the street from the cross-country ski center at Pineland. “It took right off. We had probably 45 kids in it. They could slap on the skis and go right across the street. The price was so reasonable for parents they could sign up one, two or three kids.”

“It was effective because there was no pressure. They do a little bit of instruction and they had them doing fun activities, skiing through a hoola hoop and tag games.”

Participation dropped off last year, partly due to the much colder than average temperatures. Bennett believes that the lack of after-school transportation is holding down the numbers. “Kids aren’t able to jump on an activity bus and get to where they need to go,” he said. “We’re a working class community and that’s a dilemma.”

Phil Savignano, the Outdoor Programs Coordinator at Pineland Farms said more than 4,000 kids rent skis through the Healthy Hometown program, one of a number of public spirited programs started by the Libra Foundation based at Pineland.

Some communities do it through the schools; others such as Eliot, Auburn, Bryant Pond, Poland, South Portland do it through their recreation departments.

“We’re just trying to get kids out on cross country skis,” he said. The program was a response to a recognition “that kids weren’t going outside in winter” and that skiing is a traditional winter sport in New England. “We didn’t want it to go by the wayside.” Cross country skiing is less expensive than alpine sking and can be done outside of a resort setting on gentle terrain found everywhere in Maine.

Opportunities with Biking

With all that’s going on in recreation these days, the average person might wonder if any untapped opportunities exist.One such untapped opportunity comes immediately to the mind of Jeff Miller, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine. Bicycling is so affordable and obvious that Miller says he fails to understand why schools and rec departments don’t do more to encourage it. He said it holds far more promise as lifelong activity than, say, playing volleyball.

“It has been surprisingly difficult to get them interested,” Miller said of recreation directors and schools. “There’s such a focus on team sports.” Miller suggests organizing after-school bike clubs and organizing group bike rides under adult supervision.

Miller’s view is not disputed by Beck, but he suggests at least one explanation. Beck said he’s not pushing bicycling in Auburn out of concern it might be viewed as turf-raiding by a local bicycle shop that already organizes group rides.

“Recreation departments need to be sensitive about the need to not compete,” said Beck. “All have to be sensitive to what is already being provided.”