Feature Article - January 2007
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Find out what people want and keep everyone happy

By Jessica Royer Ocken

"Every parks and recreation department I know of is trying to be more forward-thinking," said Dr. Charles H. Hammersley, associate professor of parks and recreation management at Northern Arizona University. "They like people being happy with their facilities and services, so they want to be proactive and move forward to keep them happy."

It's true. Everyone wants to offer programs people will enjoy-and that goes double for activities that truly meet a need. But how do you know what those are? Whom do you ask, what do you ask them, how do you ask them-and then what do you do with the information you've gathered? And who's paying for all this?

Before you're hopelessly overwhelmed, have a look at some examples and ideas from successful facilities and experts across the country.

Ready, set, plan

Once you've decided to get some community input, you'll want to jump right in and start asking questions, but the information you gather will be more useful if you make some plans and do some research first (and you might save money, too!). Make community input one component of a larger strategy: a master plan.

"A master plan establishes a direction for the future and allows [your organization] to meet the changing needs of the population," Hammersley said. "This is usually done every 10 years, but it should probably be done every five."

Community assessment is a part of this planning and a tool that can help most organizations, said Jacob Silver, Ph.D., president of Huron Mountain Research Services LLC, a firm that does consulting and evaluation. "It could involve a community survey, but it doesn't have to." Before you start collecting your own information, "be aware of local data sources-census data, school-district surveys, hospitals, the public health officer," he suggested.

Each of these sources will provide a portion of the big picture. The census can illuminate the age distribution of the population you're seeking to serve. If there are a lot of seniors, programming aimed at this age group might be successful. Lots of young families? Maybe child-care or preschool programs would be winners. An influx of immigrants? Programs could help them with language skills.

Schools can offer insight into the needs and concerns of their students and parents, as well as alerting you to programs they already provide or opportunities to collaborate.

What about the medical community? Aim for someone in the hospital CEO's office, Silver suggested, as the physicians are likely very busy. "Ask them what sort of services would be called for based on the needs they see from clients at the hospital."

With all of this information in mind, you'll know whom to survey in the community, and you can develop some potential programming ideas to ask them about.

It's also helpful to have a handle on what services and facilities you already offer. The Dallas park district is currently in the second phase of its 10-year Renaissance Plan, designed to make the district the "premier parks and recreation system in the country." A major asset thus far has been the conditions assessment.

"[Analysts] went to every piece of property we have, took photos and assessed its condition," explained Carolyn Bray, assistant director for Dallas Parks and Recreation, East Region.

Bray's region covers about half of the park district's holdings and includes 23 recreation centers, 10 community pools, camping and hiking facilities, 286 community parks, and White Rock Lake, a recreation area that draws visitors from across northeast Texas and beyond. Now all of these places, as well as those in the West Region, are in the park inventory database.

"It shows everything that's good about the facilities and everything that's not good," Bray explained. "Just having a system like that is worth the money. It allows you to look at the reality of what is needed. Feelings are out, facts are forward. If we want to improve things, this is how it has to happen."

In addition to examining your own assets, perform "an assessment of what you currently have in town, an inventory of facilities and recreation areas," suggested Hammersley.

Hopefully you've spoken with local school districts, but don't stop there. "That means churches, youth organizations, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs. [Find out] what programs they're offering and what groups they're serving," he said. "That starts pointing you to areas that are adequately covered and areas deficient in programs or facilities"-places where your organization could address a need.

"Frankly, if I were in charge of a fitness organization and there were well-endowed schools, a YMCA and a park district [in the area], I wouldn't be unhappy," Silver explained. "[This means] there are lots of customers in the area. Look for a niche the others aren't serving."