Feature Article - November 2008
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Versatile Venues

Collaborate to Bring More to Your Community

By Jessica Royer Ocken


However, although the benefits are clearly myriad, this collaborative joint-ownership setup is not without potential challenges. Fortunately, those already in the midst of these sorts of situations are willing to share what they've learned. The following tips are your survival guide to making a joint venture a long-term success:

  • From the very beginning, it's important to make the community aware of your plans and get them behind the project. "This wouldn't have happened without the board members I have at the center and their involvement," said the Lake Houston Y's Gonzales of his in-progress partnership with a middle school in Summerwood, Texas. "They're our allies and voice in the community."
  • But take one step back from there. The number-one key to ensuring a successful collaboration is choosing the right partner. "You need mission compatibility," said the YMCA of the USA's Johnson. "Be willing to say no to partners who might be quality in many ways, but have a different end purpose in mind." Gonzales points out that this may be "a shift in approach. But it makes sense to collaborate," he explained. "It's the opposite of a McDonald's across from a Burger King or one bank across from another. This is a way to provide a gamut of services for the community, rather than compete."
  • As you're making plans, learn from what others are doing. When creating the partnership between the Lake Houston YMCA and the Humble, Texas, Independent School District to build a middle school, Gonzales and his staff traveled the country and looked at lots of other partnerships. "

    We took that and asked what we could do better or differently," he said. "What's an area the Y hasn't been able to reach as much? Teens. We want to service teens, so what better way than with a middle school."
  • Although it's good to be flexible, especially when sharing, try to plan ahead and build structures appropriate for their intended use. "Share your programming needs early on—even before making an agreement—so you'll have a feel for how you'd use the facility," said Niskanen. "We have conducted some indoor soccer in multipurpose facilities, but they're not really designed for that, and they've had some wear and tear that's greater than what it would be with basketball [their intended purpose]."
  • This can also be a safety issue. "During [the facility's] operation there will be different levels of expectations and different needs for different groups," said Vasani. "If you have an ice rink, you'll need a place to change skates, and that's probably not the locker room. Can guests use the restroom in the locker room and then go out to the pool? You have to think through all the different users daily and how they'll use the space." And Vasani recommends planning for specific needs and both public and restricted-access areas at the design level, not just relying on procedures and policies. It's better to create a separate public restroom for visitors to the building than to trust a sign to keep unauthorized people from wandering through the locker room and into the pool area or onto the field.
  • Inevitably, logistics—both of using the space and of sharing costs—will be something you must address. "It may come down to a decision of how many electrical meters you're going to have on the building so you can see how much electricity each user is using and split the electrical costs," noted OLC's McDonald. There are also site-planning issues to consider. How will parking areas work? How will different entry points be used? "Way-finding becomes an issue on the site itself," he added. "If you're coming to watch a track event, where do you park and enter versus a recreation center user?"
  • Day-to-day operations at the space are still another consideration. How will you transition from one use of the space to the next? Is the person at the front desk equipped to answer questions for all possible visitors to the center? "Who is the manager?" Vasani asked. "Create an entity that oversees everybody," he suggested. This may prevent a power struggle among users of the space.
  • Another way to prevent power struggles? Prepare to compromise—and not just about funding. "To make things work better, you may have to change the way you're doing things and think of it in a different way," said Vasani. For example, OLC worked on a project that involved a medical group having a presence in a community-based facility. "Traditionally, they had certain storage requirements that started to eat up a lot of space and block interactions," he recalled. But in this case, the partners discussed their needs, and the medical group volunteered to switch to an electronic filing system. "We had to take time to think, but we made it happen, and the building was better because of it," Vasani said. "That space is now used for exercise."

However you determine your partnership is going to work, make sure it's as formalized as possible. Good partnerships may blossom from a friendship or successful relationship between two directors or a school principal and a fitness manager, but inevitably, those leaders move on. "Good feeling needs to outlast the two agency executives," said the YMCA of the USA's Johnson. "Our experience has been that you need [shared] board members to represent on each organization's board."

Also, create some sort of new governing structure or forum to resolve issues. "Who gets the gym time and office space is easy," he said. "You work that out. It's the bigger issue. You need someone to sail the ship with a steady hand."