One Eye on the Future
Plan Your Facility for the Long Term
By Dave Ramont
You've probably heard the old saying, adapted from a work by Scottish poet Robert Burns: "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." Indeed, no matter how carefully a project is planned, there is still plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong down the road. And this is certainly true when planning, designing and building facilities, including municipal and park district centers, sports and recreation facilities, and health and fitness clubs. There are so many factors for owners and managers to consider as they work to get a new project off the ground that they often overlook the importance of long-term considerations, such as setting aside the budget to handle operational and maintenance costs well into the future.
Moody Nolan, an architecture firm based in Columbus, Ohio, has worked from coast to coast on civic and corporate projects, education and healthcare facilities and housing and retail projects. Troy Sherrard, a partner and practice leader in the Sports and Recreation Design arm of the company, which has worked on stadiums and arenas, training facilities, gymnasiums and community and collegiate recreation centers, said that when it comes to the success of long-term planning for operations and maintenance of recreation and sports facilities, there are two key aspects to consider: establishing a clear financial model and hosting an integrated design process.
"Everyone is pretty clear on what we call 'first costs,' such as construction costs, permits, equipment, land acquisitions, etc.-these are all the initial hard and soft costs to make the project a reality," Sherrard said. "What is equally important to the success of a project is the 'projected costs' to operate and maintain the facility over time-items such as staffing, utility bills, surface finishes, future upgrades and anything that moves." He said that some of these things might include doors, windows, netting systems, fans, expansion joints and elevators.
Since there are so many considerations-and possible pitfalls-when planning a new facility and its future, it's common for owners and stakeholders to conduct a feasibility study.
In fact, many ideas that are hashed out in the planning and design phase can have great impact in the long term for a facility. "Buildings are more complex now and require the owner, key stakeholders, facility operators, architects and engineers to pool all their collective knowledge and experience from the very beginning of every development to clearly establish measurable outcomes," Sherrard said.
He added that this integrated design feedback process should clearly outline expectations of all projected costs, from staffing to building energy use, and that this data can significantly affect building design. "Current best facility design and sustainable practices that impact operations and maintenance involve integrated team design process, life cycle assessments, material sourcing and transparency and building envelope commissioning," Sherrard said.
As an example, he mentioned the Penn State student recreation building, which was designed to maximize a full building hybrid ventilation system and daylight monitors to hit targeted, strict energy-use requirements.
Plan It Out
Since there are so many considerations-and possible pitfalls-when planning a new facility and its future, it's common for owners and stakeholders to conduct a feasibility study. These preliminary studies are undertaken in the earliest stages of a project, especially when there are doubts or concerns or the project is particularly large or complex. In simplest terms, these studies determine if a project is viable, assessing the potential and upsides as well as the limitations and downsides. Many factors are looked at, including site appraisals, environmental impact, legal issues, servicing strategies and program considerations, operational and maintenance issues, funding and long-term budgeting.
Oftentimes, outside consultants are brought in to help guide owners and managers through the wide array of issues that demand attention. PROS Consulting Inc., based in Indianapolis, is a management, consulting and planning firm focusing on services to government and not-for-profit agencies. Leon Younger, founder and president, has spent more than 29 years working in parks and recreation and leisure organizations, as well as presenting his management and development philosophies at conferences, workshops and training sessions. Michael Svetz is a principal at PROS Consulting, with more than 20 years of experience developing, operating and managing parks and recreation and sports complexes. They said that it's necessary for agencies to develop a "Total Cost of Ownership" financial plan to ensure that they know what they are getting into, which can be done through the development of a business plan born out of a feasibility study at the onset of the project. "More and more agencies are developing feasibility studies and business plans on the front end to gauge community support and funding options, as well as establishing a realistic cost recovery goal that can be coordinated with the design team who is designing the facility and building the facility for the agency."
It's critically important to have a proper culture in place that recognizes a new facility as another opportunity to enhance public service, and not an additional headache.
But it does seem that owners and project managers often overlook the importance of long-term considerations, such as setting aside budgets to handle operational and maintenance costs down the road. "This is a common problem, as the funding necessary to construct facilities is typically a little easier to come by since it is 'one-time money,' whereas the funding source for the subsidizing of annual operations, maintenance and the lifecycle replacement of assets is usually the general fund," explained Younger and Svetz. "As a general rule of thumb, we recommend that agencies set aside 3 percent to 5 percent of their annual operating budget into an asset management fund to perform fund lifecycle replacement as needed."
According to Younger and Svetz, not setting aside monies for this fund can cause problems down the road. "By not setting up an asset management fund, agencies may incur unplanned expenditures that require governing bodies to appropriate funding that was unplanned."
They also explained that long-range planning is important-particularly in the public realm-when agencies are looking to secure funding or grants. "Most granting agencies want to know that you have a financially feasible and sustainable project at the onset of the project."
Before Stephen Madewell retired from the public sector in 2016, he spent 37 years in the parks and recreation industry, including serving as executive director for three of the largest regional park districts in Ohio. He has extensive experience with long-range planning, facility development, and developing operational and 10-year capital plans, and has presented sessions on these topics. He has also seen long-term considerations being overlooked, and said that a host of factors need to be taken into consideration with any new project.
First and foremost, according to Madewell, agencies need to ask themselves if their maintenance regimens are currently acceptable. If they are not, adding an additional maintenance obligation can be problematic. "Nothing ages a new facility like an inadequate commitment to daily and routine maintenance. If basic institutional maintenance is suffering, adding a new facility just creates another burden to a failing system."
He added that it's critically important to have a proper culture in place that recognizes a new facility as another opportunity to enhance public service, and not an additional headache. "On many occasions I have seen inadequate planning for operational maintenance, and existing staff were never able to catch up with the new workload. Planning for appropriate workload adjustment and expansion is paramount."
It is also essential to plan for system replacement and upgrades from day one. "There are a number of formulas available that take into consideration life expectancies for roofs, HVAC systems, etc.," Madewell said, "and the best approaches have an annual capital budget set aside based on the value of assets and projected replacement cycles. These set-asides carry forward until they are needed."
Younger and Svetz agree: "Capital plans for facilities incorporate not only the construction costs of the facility, but planning for lifecycle replacement of assets such as equipment, furnishings, lighting, HVAC, floor coverings, etc."
And what about the so-called 10-year capital plan-what does this entail? Madewell said that a plan of this nature is often tied to an increase in revenue stream, a new levy or perhaps a bond initiative.
"A 10-year capital plan must incorporate a commitment to maintain existing facilities at an exemplary level. If they are not at this level, they need to be before launching major new developments. This is an essential foundation for additional growth." If this commitment is not in place, said Madewell, an institution is immediately set up for the criticism of not taking care of existing public resources, and draining or diverting resources away from existing needs.
New developments need to be timed out thoughtfully, according to Madewell. "There is a school of thought to build out immediately to maximize service delivery. Another view is to build over a period of time so there is a series of new projects coming on line over the period of the levy or the bond." He pointed out that a sequenced expansion also affords the agency the ability to make institutional or cultural adjustments for new operational, marketing and administrative workloads.
When agencies fail to plan for long-term maintenance and operational needs, and set aside proper budgets, how can they get around the problems that arise? Madewell said this is a difficult hole to climb out of. "I have worked for agencies that have capital budgets based around what is left after operational needs are met. This sets an agency up for crisis management as opposed to preventive management. It is very difficult to get new money for existing facilities. If this is the operational mode for an agency, it is simply a matter of time before an irresolvable problem happens and a facility is closed or demolished or there is an agency restructuring with reduction in service, increased fees and charges, or both."
Madewell explained how, several decades ago, there was an explosion of facility development based on revenue, but unfortunately many of those early models failed to incorporate appropriate major maintenance and replacement costs. "Contemporary models are much better at avoiding this," he said.
A strategic plan sets a direction for an agency or organization, setting goals and objectives and offering a game plan and different strategies for attaining those goals. An operational plan is more of the nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day guide used to help make the strategic plan a success, describing how the strategic plan will be put into operation during a given time period. An operational plan is looked at when preparing an operating budget and planning for resource allocation.
When developing an operational plan, what are some considerations for the long term? One option that Younger and Svetz suggest is the development of what's commonly known as a 20-year capital expenditure or lifecycle replacement schedule that includes replacement of systems as well as renovations or upgrades to the facility that meet the changing recreational needs of the community.
Madewell said it's important to project increased operational costs over time, and looking at past budget cycles over several years and tracking increases in operational costs is one tool that can be developed to assist in projecting future increases. "An agency should have a projection on increases in operational costs as well as a preventive approach, inventory and inspection of assets and appropriate budget to address major maintenance and replacement costs."
A long-range vision plan-which might consider the next five or even 10 years-is basically a set of goals that an agency or entity develops that they feel will pave the way to a successful future. Oftentimes, shorter-range strategic plans are then developed to help achieve the goals in the long-range plan. "I have come to think of a vision plan as a map to the future with a destination in mind that ties to the values of the community and capitalizes on the caliber of the existing regional resources and societal trends to build a route to the future," Madewell said.
He added that he's seen dozens of these plans during his career, saying some were unattainable or unrealistic, or simply not tied to the values of the community or the capacity of the agency. "Others I have seen were actually incredibly good, but for a number of reasons were never embraced by the agency and collected dust while the agency operated day to day, year to year with no aspirations for the future."
If the values of a community and societal trends are important considerations when thinking about the future, shouldn't public agencies and other businesses engage the public when working on long-range plans? Yes, said Younger and Svetz, though the level of engagement might vary depending on what is being developed.
"On the front end there is always a lot of public involvement through surveys, focus groups, public workshops and forums."
Even if a facility is being remodeled or new features are being added, the public expects to see some level of a user survey or focus group that targets questions to users on what is most desired. "Conducting a community needs assessment survey every five years will provide data that supports the upgrades or renovations that meet the recreational desires of the community and, in turn, will ensure maximum utilization of the facility," explained Younger and Svetz.
Regional and local parks and recreation agencies are some of today's most transparent units of government, as far as Madewell is concerned. Some agencies have extensive public involvement in their planning, and many use extensive surveys of users and community residents. Surveying both of these groups is essential, according to Madewell, since many citizens may value the parks, but for whatever reason are casual users or may not use the parks at all. And while it's important to meet the needs and expectations of visitors, it's also important to cultivate and retain the support of non-users. "They can often be swing votes," Madewell said.
If the values of a community and societal trends are important considerations when thinking about the future, shouldn't public agencies and other businesses engage the public when working on long-range plans?
When it comes to the public involvement process, Madewell said that he has seen both good and, well, not as good. "The worst were cumbersome and ineffective, got off track and floundered. Sometimes this was the result of single agenda user groups who were able to drive the process in an unrealistic direction or in a manner that alienated population segments."
Madewell explained that a good, professional facilitator who understands the mission and vision of the agency can be incredibly important. "I have found that ongoing public surveys can be essential in clarifying and validating the value and relevance of an agency's mission, and these survey results are extremely valuable for tailoring operational objectives and long-range goals."
Sometimes the best intentions of organizations and businesses fall short due to poor planning. The author Alan Lakein-who's written about personal time management and has made management and training films-said that "Planning is bringing the future into the present so that you can do something about it now."
Or perhaps we should consider the even more concise words of Benjamin Franklin: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."
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