The New West

The past decade has seen mountains of change in the Intermountain West. Once a collection of far-flung semi-cities in and around the Rockies, places like Boise, Idaho, have witnessed a population surge that has given these towns a decidedly metropolitan feel.

Ironically, the same people who flocked to these centers west of the Continental Divide to pursue a higher quality of life have found that growth tends to lower the living standard.

Rather than retreat to an urban mindset, the Boise parks and recreation department has been actively working to keep Boise's long-standing history of outdoor recreation.

"We have to re-engineer what we do and how we show the public that we have a lot of value to provide. I don't think it's a matter of being over-capacity at our parks. In fact, I don't think we're using our parks, facilities and programs to the fullest we can use them," explains James Hall, Boise's director of parks and recreation.

"It's not about having too little; it's just that we haven't thought big enough on how to make our parks even more open and available to the public."

Even so, having land available for new and ongoing parks projects is cited by Hall as one of most important factors any parks and recreation department should actively engage in to ensure a dynamic and active parks program. It's also one of the hardest things to do, for a number of reasons.

"Most people don't want to go out and buy the land. If you're a politician you want to build something, cut a ribbon and have people jumping up and down for joy that you put that new playground in their neighborhood," says Hall.

"But if you're patient enough you'll realize that when you buy the land, the value back to you is greater being a partner with groups like the Optimist Club, a developer or youth soccer. We can't go out, buy the land and expect to develop all of it right away. Those who really want the facilities have the will and the way to come up with the money."

People want instant results, but those don't happen unless the land is already available. That's one reason Boise's parks and recreation department has purchased over 1,000 acres of land, encompassing 35 park sites, over the last nine years.

Partners that Last

With the land available, and the long-range master plan developed, it's a matter of plugging interested partners into the available land parcels.

Hall says that a fairly common situation is someone wants to memorialize a loved one through some type of parks program or facility. Sometimes they have something specific in mind -- like a playground -- and sometimes they don't.

Either way, Hall works to direct their donation into something that's already in the department's plan and where the land is ready to use.

"For the most part we're successful in getting them to do it, because people recognize that if they're going to spend their money they don't want to spend it on something people won't appreciate," explains Hall.

"The way you build flexibility in the plan is that you want the end result to be what you envisioned it to be in the first place. If someone wants to give you money toward a playground and the playground is supposed to be there at the end of that five- or ten-year horizon then you've done the right thing. If it doesn't meet your plan and it doesn't fit, you have to be courageous enough to say, 'This is really where we need to be headed in order to keep our plan.' If you put that playground in a park that doesn't need one, it will be a waste, and they'll be mad because you didn't convince them not to put it on that spot in the first place."

Hall says that the department will not enter into a partnership agreement unless they have the funds to maintain it. From there the proposal is taken to city council where the parameters are laid out, like partner responsibilities, the number of citizens impacted, cost sharing and so forth.

"Because of the economy we're trying to do smaller partnerships. We're hunkering down a little bit and doing a lot of smaller partnerships that are less maintenance intensive. You have to be creative, and look at how you can make the partnership work," says Hall.

Hall points to a couple of partnership programs that help illustrate its unique approach. One of these was its second skatepark, and the other -- with the local power company -- is on the drawing board.

"We learned from the first skatepark that we probably didn't involve the kids enough, so for the second one we put three or four kids on an airplane, rented a car and went all over Southern California looking at skateparks. They took pictures, took their boards, got to ride them, saw what they were like and how they functioned," recalls Hall.

"After they came back we sat down with them and a bunch of other skaters. We threw a box of clay down and said, 'Okay. You guys design the park.' So they went out and designed a 12,000-square-foot skatepark."

Once the park was designed, Boise worked with a concrete company to donate about $20,000 worth of labor and the parks and recreation department came up with money for materials and supplies.

"It's theirs… They own it and take care of it. It's right next to one of our rec centers and one of the alternative schools. The more ownership you give the kids to design it and to have a say in how they're going to be operated, the more willingness you're going to have from them to protect it, take care of it and not vandalize it," says Hall.

"We don't have graffiti. We don't have any problems. There's a school liaison officer assigned to every elementary and junior high in Boise. They know the kids and visit them at the skateboard park, and it works out real well. We've gotten a lot of comments from the kids saying that we're treating them like adults and giving them responsibility, and they really appreciate that."

Some of Boise's most valuable partnerships come from the construction trades -- like concrete companies -- and developers. Developers, once educated by parks and recreation, realize that it's a no-brainer to work inside the master plan as best they can to accommodate its needs. They have to pay impact fees anyway, and funneling much of this toward parks and recreation creates public and private value.

A different partnership that Boise is currently pursuing with the local power company seeks to market both organizations while encouraging the public to conserve energy, which has been a real crisis in the West over the last few years, particularly in the summer.

"It doesn't cost you a thing to go to a park and walk the greenway or take the kids to a playground. We're planning to work with Idaho Power to convince them that we need to work together to advertise that you can conserve energy on a hot day by not going into your house. Instead, during that time period go to a local park, play with the kids, sit along the river, read a book, have a picnic… That will save energy costs at home," says Hall.

"Also, getting kids to sign up for rec programs and activities may be cheaper in the long run, rather than having the health consequences of having their kids stay home playing video games."

Boise's parks and recreation department actually gets an important two-fold message out to the public -- save energy and prevent the health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. While these are issues that obviously help create more activity within the parks and recreation department, reaping financial benefits, they're also issues the department believes in for the greater good of its citizens.

Of course, these partnership examples are just the tip of the iceberg as Boise utilizes any number of different strategies to realize its goals.

Whatever the strategy, Hall says it's crucial to find partners that fit your niche, to deliver what you promise and have public buy-in to the master plan. As Hall says, "Once you have that plan and the vision is set, it doesn't matter if the economy is up or down."

The reason the fluctuating economy has little impact is the aforementioned strategy of working within a partnership niche -- sponsors that are typically associated with parks and recreation activities. And, once the partnership is realized in a new park or facility, expectations that have been met or exceeded create future partnerships and cash flow simply through reputation.

This aggressive strategy has shown great success. Hall says Boise has brought in about $30 million in partnerships while the cost to support them has been about $6 million.

Though Hall says the economy may not have a big impact on a well thought-out master plan, the current economic climate makes working the plan that much more pressing as people look locally for more programming, rather than spend money on vacations away from home.

Supporting Staff

All of these factors have combined to grow the department from 88 full-time employees to 141. Boise also has about 500 seasonal employees.

"The key is to hire the best people for the job. You agree with them on the direction to get the job done. You make sure that each side fully understands what the end result should be, and you get out of the way and let them do their job," says Hall.

"If you hire bright, talented people with a lot of integrity they're going to make a mistake now and then. They're going to learn from it and will go back out and fix it. Nobody has all the answers on how any given situation is going to turn out. Go in as prepared as you can and plan for it. Hire exceptionally talented people, with good direction, a lot of trust and commitment, let them do the job, and if there's a mistake, shake it off. Tell them as often as you can how good of a job they do."

Hall says they use hiring teams for just about every job where an opening is available. Typically, these screening teams consist of staff from the department -- such as administration, recreation and the supervisor -- who work up questions and evaluate skills, qualifications, traits, personality type and so forth.

"The first thing we try to do is hire within. The best resource you have in a department is the resource you have inside, because you've spent all that money training and preparing them," says Hall. "Once you hire them, create obtainable goals, provide good evaluations and compliment them a lot."

The human element is what makes the department work, but the technology element is becoming increasingly important. It is allowing Boise to cut down on man hours and make things easier for its citizens.

Over the past 10 years, Boise's parks and recreation department has gone from about five to 114 computers within the department. Everything, from reports to time sheets, has been digitized. Digital cameras are part of the digital arsenal and have become valuable documentation tools.

About 75 percent of the department's irrigation systems have been converted to a computer-aided irrigation management program. Sensors on the system take wind velocity, evaporation, temperature readings and other pertinent information to drive the application rate based on the weather pattern.

"Rather than having 10 staff members running around to 80 or 90 park sites adjusting the irrigation system all the time -- whether it rains or it's too hot -- we have a computer system that says, 'We've had 1/2" of rain last night at this park, and for that reason we only need to water half as much,'" explains Hall.

They have also hooked up several restrooms to an automatic system that locks the doors at 9 p.m. and reopens them at 7 a.m. Panic hardware allows a patron caught inside after nine to get out, then the door automatically locks behind them.

"By doing that we've discouraged transients from sleeping in there or any bad activities at night. We also don't have to send a crew around seven days a week twice a week to lock and unlock restrooms," says Hall.

"It may cost a little bit of money to do it, but over time it pays for itself. Man power is incredibly costly and technology is sometimes a one-time fix to have someone sit at a computer and adjust the times. Technology is -- for the good or bad of it -- here to stay, and we better figure out ways to apply it here in the department."

Boise is taking its program registration on-line. Rather than simply offer a way for people to send their registrations in through the Internet, the department is developing interactive programming that's both informational for the browser and markets the department's offerings.

"Let's say you want to take an art program, but you're really not sure. Soon you're going to be able to go into the Web page, pull up our activity program, go to the art section and while you're in the art program it might have a little camera next to Learn How to do Pottery. You can click on the camera and up comes our instructor who will give a description of what you'll learn. And, you'll be able to click on a testimonial. It's in the works and we'll be putting it out within a year in certain areas."