Feature Article - June 2007
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Building Active, Involved Communities

Bigger and Better - Planning New Facilities

Parks and recreation departments were slightly more likely than the average respondents to be planning changes to their exiting facilities—from building entirely new facilities to adding on or renovating their existing facilities. Nearly four out of five parks and recreation respondents had plans of some kind. They also were much more likely than the average respondent to be planning to build new, with 41.5 percent of parks and recreation departments planning new facilities in the next few years, compared to less than 35 percent of the general survey population. In addition, 37.6 percent plan to add onto their existing facilities, and 57.8 percent are planning renovations.

These new facilities, additions and renovations will cost substantially less than those for other sectors covered in the survey. Parks and recreation departments that have plans for facility construction project that they will spend $2.74 million, on average, more than 38 percent less than the average for all types of facilities.

For those planning to construct new facilities or renovate their existing buildings, Daniel Atilano, principal and team leader of Burnidge Cassell Associates' Recreation and Municipal Studio, suggests that the first step is to get the right people involved. Based in Elgin, Ill., Atilano has presented at conferences for the National Recreation & Park Association (NRPA), as well as the Illinois Park and Recreation Association.

"The key recommendation is to create a winning team," he said. "Make sure you surround yourself with a group of people who share enthusiasm for what you're doing."

Susan Wallover, principal of Recreation Planning Associates, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based firm that focuses predominantly on feasibility studies for community centers, recreation centers and swimming pools across the board, said it's also important to thoroughly canvass the community to determine what will work best.

"You need to ask the community what they want," she explained. "Don't presume to know based on your family or your needs what they want. And you have to ask according to age group, as well as ethnicity. If you're coming from a different background, your needs may be different."

To get started on the process, Wallover recommends a citizen assessment survey to find out what people want and what they will support. "However, do not ask them if they will pay for it, or how they will pay for it," she added. "If I asked you, 'Do you want to buy this house?' but you didn't know what's in the house, would you want to buy it? They have to know what the facility's going to provide for them. Find out what the community wants as a whole, then assign the price tag. You can always back down. The survey should go first, a feasibility study, and don't forget the importance of building partnerships."

Todd Seidler, the coordinator of the graduate program in Sport Administration at the University of New Mexico and a facility planning consultant, advised getting the right input. "Oftentimes when facilities are planned, the owners will hire an architect and let them plan it without having any input from the professional staff who are going to use the facility, and that's how we end up having what we call building bloopers," said Seidler, who has served on the executive board and as chair of the Sport Management Council and the Council on Facilities and Equipment within the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (AAHPERD). "It's real common to walk in and find major mistakes made during the planning of a facility," he added. "Often it's because the professional staff wasn't allowed any input. All too often, it may be the architect's first pool or recreation center that they've planned, and we don't want them to be learning on our facility. If the staff can get involved in the planning, they need to do it. Don't just depend on the architect to get it right without that input."

Ultimately, Atilano said that the key for any facility manager to think about when considering new buildings, or just fixing up or programming their existing spaces, is to consider what their facility can do differently. "It's really about thinking about what programs you're putting in," he explained. "What has a proven track record? You have to look closely on a case-by-case basis. If you're doing something that's losing money, maybe it's time to rethink it. If you keep doing the same thing, you're probably going to get the same results."

Wallover said an important part of this process is to consider the programs that your patrons might find elsewhere. "They need to step back and find out what's going on in their entire community—who's doing what," she said. "If they can work with the economic development group and find out what else is going on, hopefully you end up not competing, but joining forces to do more."

"People want to do what their neighbor did that worked, but we like to make people look internally and ask them, 'What's different about your community and what do you need to address that's more pertinent to where you're at, as opposed to what your neighbor is doing?'" Atilano added.