Collaborate to Bring More to Your Community
By Jessica Royer Ocken
Having a place where more than one activity can happen is by no means a new concept. But multipurpose facilities are a concept that seems to become more and more relevant all the time. Whether it's an aging and changing population, a tightening budget or a desire to be more in tune to the needs of the community, many of the signals you're likely to receive as the planner or manager of recreation space will point you toward maximizing your assets and creating convenience for your users.
"But we've been doing this for years," you say. "Our gym/fitness center/swimming pool complex is going strong." If that's the case, you may be ahead of the curve, but there's room for even you to grow. More than just multiple activities, the most versatile of venues these days are created by multiple partners in an arrangement that takes collaboration—and community service—to a whole new level.
So whether you're considering a new facility, looking to add interest to current offerings or wanting to approach a partnership, Recreation Management can help. Consider the following suggestions and examples as you find the multifaceted solution that's right for you.
In the realm of multipurpose venues, the ideal might be to have an array of enticing options in one location and all under your control, but tread carefully down this path. Any facility large enough to house many activities effectively is, well, large—and likely expensive.
Ed Munster, chief operating officer for the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, which includes 26 branches and recently merged with Cobb County YMCA to add 10 more, knows a thing or two about this. "When we build, we have to know we'll be supported by a large membership," he explained. These consistently paying customers are what foots the facility's bill. "We have a disciplined way to determine whether the community is there. If they are, we'll wrap classes [and other programming] around the membership, but those are not the drivers or decision makers about whether to build a building."
This disciplined process Munster refers to begins with a marketing study to evaluate the community in the area where the building is being considered. The Y conducts surveys to see who would be interested in attending a YMCA and tests "price sensitivity" to determine what sort of fees they can reasonably charge. After that, it's simple math. "We take the price we can charge times the number of members and see how much revenue that will generate," Munster said.
That gives them a starting point, but that's not the end of the calculations. Munster estimates that running a large (50,000-square-foot-plus) facility well costs $1 million to $2 million a year "just to open the doors," he said. "That's before you start repairing and replacing." And if you've gone to the expense of constructing this magnificent recreational palace, you'll want it to last, so figuring in operational costs is key to budgeting. "The biggest mistake people make is thinking that having the capital for the building solves their problem," Munster said. "Operating costs are far more expensive."
A big component of ensuring you can generate the funds you need to operate your facility is creating it to be the leisure destination your particular community is looking for—and having the ability to adapt as the community's desires change. The Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods in Modesto, Calif., maintains a variety of multipurpose venues with the "same good level of service" they always have, explained Director Jim Niskanen, "but if we had more health- and lifestyle-related facilities, which require different programming and equipment, people would use them."
So, for the new venues this city is building, these types of interests are definitely a consideration. "We have seen a huge shift toward walking and biking and active lifestyle facilities," he said. "We have tremendous support for our trail system. Even at the neighborhood park level, the number-one interest is a walking trail. It's interesting that that has taken such a prominent role in facility development."
But the real item of interest here is the park district's willingness to respond to the community. "Each community is unique in what it needs," noted Cezar Gonzales, executive director of the Lake Houston Family YMCA, a truly multipurpose facility with amenities and activities from splash pool to teen room to child care to Pilates.
But this Y also operates branches in Kingwood, Texas, and Splendora, Texas.
"Go into the community and ask what their needs are, not what your needs are," he said. "Splendora is a lower-income community that needed programming for kids and families. The Y can do it."
The Lake Houston Y is also planning a facility for Summerwood, Texas, a newly developing area. "That's a small, plant community, which lacks the amenities of an older, established community, so the Y brings community recreation services that they wouldn't have otherwise," Gonzales said.
Meeting the needs of the community applies not just to the features you choose for your facility, but also to the way they are designed and built. In other words, make sure the options you have are as multipurpose as possible. "The Y as most people think about it has two big boxes—a gym and a pool," noted Atlanta's Munster. "But we've designed our latest pools to accommodate zero-depth entry, and they have low-level water for very young children with parents. There's an area in the pool that's for exercise classes, an area that serves lap swimming and one for swim instruction, so we have four activities in the pool at once." In addition to multiplying the pool's uses, these special features also make the water accessible to both the very young and the aging population, a component of many communities that grows larger all the time.
Also, more activity-oriented pool settings (and other recreational areas) can have a financial impact. "It's hard to charge more than 50 cents or a dollar for admission to a competition pool," reported Modesto's Niskanen. "People don't stay too long."
But in a more family-oriented aquatics setting, with splash pools and water playgrounds and slides, in addition to regular old places to swim, "you can stay the whole day and add concessions and other things to make it useable and enjoyable—more of a destination," he said. And also more of a revenue generator, which keeps cash flowing into that all-important operations fund, and keeps your building and the community it serves in good shape (literally!) for years to come.
Say you have a multipurpose facility already, but you're not sure it's living up to its full potential. Seems like there are some empty spaces here and there that should ideally be filled with activity—be it an art class, a camp for kids, or group lessons in computer use or parenting or Spanish. Or perhaps you have the opposite problem: a team of staff and volunteers just bursting with ideas for activities they'd like to lead and classes they'd like to offer, but not enough space to accommodate them or not a convenient enough location to bring all the potentially interested populations in-house. Either way, your solution is the same: find a programming partner.
"Our board about three years ago wanted to expand services to un-served areas," said Lake Houston's Gonzales. "We don't have the funds to build Y's everywhere, so we have to collaborate and look at existing resources." Part of this goal has led the Lake Houston Y into a full-fledged collaboration with another institution (more on that later), but in Splendora, it means the Y is providing programming in a preexisting local community building.
"There's a doctor's office in there, and the Boys and Girls Club has used the facility, but the Y has taken it a step further by bringing more programs than a specific, targeted agency would," Gonzales said. Whether you're a Y or a park district or some other type of community organization, bringing the services you offer to those who need them is a guaranteed way to increase participation—and make any space into a multipurpose facility.
YMCAs are not only excellent current examples of this process, they're probably the original example. "In its inception in the United States, the Y did not operate its own facilities," explained Kent Johnson, COO of the YMCA of the USA. "Y's shared frequently with churches, libraries and other locations, so this is a longstanding tradition and a big piece of our community-based mission model." YMCAs have been partnering with park districts, schools and municipalities for many years, and even today, the Y's "recreation facility may be their base, but we continue to offer programs in schools and libraries," Johnson said.
But what if your situation is the opposite? You need to provide more interesting options for the community around you and increase the use of your existing space, rather than branching out. In this case, the model being practiced by the city of Modesto may be just the example you need.
To ensure that they're used to their full potential, facilities owned by the Modesto Department of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhoods are available for rent. But this doesn't just mean you can have your next birthday party there. "We have several levels of rental use," explained Niskanen. "We co-sponsor almost every nonprofit youth or senior organization in town that provides valuable services, so that relationship means they're a 501(c)3, they serve 50 or more Modesto residents, and they will be open to the public and available to those who want to participate." Organizations that meet these requirements can use parks department facilities for free, "and they have access to Leisure Bucks, which is a scholarship program for families who can't afford to pay," noted Niskanen. "This [arrangement] is our highest level of use outside what the department plans."
Modesto facilities are also made available to other government entities, such as the County Office of Education, which may want to use the space for community meetings or organizational events. Then, finally, they are available for private or corporate rental. "Companies can rent a pool for a fee, or it may be individuals who want to rent a facility," said Niskanen. "Our group picnic areas and lighted softball fields do get considerable private use, and this helps cover our operating costs," he continued. "It adds income to offset the cost of those facilities."
A final tip for maximizing the use of your assets: Know who you're trying to attract, and make sure your facility and programming is appealing to them. "The Y knows what business it wants to be in," explained Munster. "We want to attract families." This means their multipurpose venue needs to include both kid-friendly and adult-oriented spaces and activities, and they need to be planned to occur simultaneously. "Parents won't bring their kids, or the kids won't want to come, if it's not fun. Parents don't want to write a check if the kids are complaining… The whole family should be able to come at the same time," he said.
They won't necessarily all be doing the same thing while they're within your walls, but there should be a place for each of them to get involved—childcare for kids while parents work out or classes for kids scheduled to coincide with classes for adults. This is another way programming partnerships can help you increase your appeal. Need more things for kids to do? Perhaps another local organization can provide some classes, or maybe there's a day camp looking for a home. And this approach certainly doesn't exclude individuals. "We have great facilities, and [single adults] are welcome," Munster said. "But we know we need to have spaces for kids."
By now, this idea of working with another organization for space or programming or whatever it is you need may sound pretty good. When you're ready to truly collaborate, meaning you'll take every step of the project in tandem—planning, design, programming, operations—there are some careful considerations that will help you toward success, and there are certainly an assortment of benefits to be had.
First and foremost, collaborating with another organization allows for savings on capital costs. "We have seen a lot of different groups come together that are trying to find a way, from a practical standpoint, to save some money," said Doni Vasani, principal with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative (OLC), a Denver, Colo., architecture firm specializing in recreation facilities. "Facilities are starting to cost quite a bit, and funding is tough." Modesto's Niskanen, who is in the midst of a collaborative project with the city's police and fire departments that will yield a neighborhood park with an on-site fire and police station, as well as community meeting space and public services center, would agree. "It's going to be far more efficient financially than if all three of us went off and built where we could find space. There's land acquisition, development costs..."
And Niskanen has noted other benefits of this arrangement as well. "With the involvement of the police and fire departments, we gain a higher level of interest from the community and, to be blunt, from elected officials," he said. "They bring support and credibility, so some atypical funding sources for parks and recreation have become possible."
This one-stop-shopping situation also adds convenience for the users, which is a core reason for having a multipurpose facility in the first place. "It makes sense to the community," Niskanen said. "They can go to one place for nearly anything they need to take care of."
Having partners—particularly those related to law enforcement—also enhances safety at a joint-use facility. The Modesto project will sit in a bit of a troubled neighborhood, and "it's great because the fire house is designed with the park as its front yard. The firefighters are around all the time. They'll look out as they're eating and relaxing, so it's a new set of eyes on the park," said Niskanen. The on-site police precinct will have a similar effect, as a "full set of police officers will be changing over three times a day. We'll have a built-in level of safety we've never had before."
But more—or at least equally—important for these collaborative projects is the improved use of the space the partnerships bring. The community center previously located on the Infinity Park rugby project's space "was not used very much," Vasani explained. "It didn't have the right amenities that constituents were looking for." When it came to revitalizing the space with a new facility, they were determined to remedy that situation. "If we had to build a large stadium that will be unoccupied for many hours of the day, to have a support facility next to it that functions on a daily basis as a community recreation center and doubles as a sports facility for large events"—the space will house amenities for fans on game day and rugby players will work out alongside members of the community in the fitness center—"that's killing two birds with one stone," Vasani said.
The police and fire departments will share park district meeting rooms at the park/city services complex, but Niskanen noted Modesto's long-standing parks and rec partnership with local schools as an even better example of maximizing space use. As a rule, parks are located near schools whenever possible, and "at the high school level, we try to design facilities with coordination," he explained. "Softball fields are built on the park side, and baseball fields on the school site, then the two get used based on school and community needs." In the case of a specialized facility, such as a competition swimming pool or multipurpose building with a gymnasium, "we have co-developed the cost of building those, and under that agreement the school uses them during the school year for competitions and PE classes, then we have them for lessons and recreation during the summer." And there's sharing during the school year as well, as the park district manages the multipurpose spaces during after-school hours. "So we get a higher level of use for our initial 50-percent investment in capital," said Niskanen.
The way the joint-use building is designed can also be an added benefit to the partners involved. "We are finding that when you can integrate with other activities, the synergy between having those multiple uses converging in one venue makes a more attractive space and more successful venture," said Vasani. "It's much like an urban city—the downtown has multiple things to do, and that makes the core city an interesting place."
Practically speaking, having more than one activity in a particular location can help each organization "cross-pollinate" and gain new participants. "You've got certain users who come on a regular basis, and some come to see an indoor track event as a spectator," said Bob McDonald, a senior principal with OLC. "Then they're exposed to the recreation center. They see the activities and can be enticed to come back."
This situation works particularly well if the partners have constituent groups that wouldn't necessarily overlap—such as a hospital or other medical practice that joins a city or parks and recreation department to create a fitness center. "Members are made aware of the hospital group and what that brings to the community, and the community learns what's out there in terms of fitness," said Vasani.
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."
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