Peak Parks

Recreation can be a hard sell, particularly when taxpayers feel increasingly overburdened during economic downturns. Park City, Utah, has made recreation an economic driver for the community.

You might say Park City already has an economic driver in the prodigious white gold that falls from the sky every winter, attracting droves of people to the powdery slopes of the Wasatch Range.

Drawing the Droves

Though this section of Utah just outside Salt Lake City gets its share of summer visitors, lured by cool weather and stunning views, the droves invade in the winter months.

Park City's Recreation Services Department operates outside the realm of the city's glitzy ski resorts and film festivals, but is working on making its offerings a draw in and of itself.

For example, Park City has attracted Triple Crown Sports -- a group out of Steamboat Springs, Colo., that runs baseball and softball tournaments in all age groups.

A new event this summer has Park City hosting two weeks of girls' Triple Crown fast-pitch softball, which translates to about 80 teams with 40-50 people from each team traveling to Park City for the tournament.

"It's a huge influx of tax dollars for us, through lodging, restaurants and other venues. The city's restaurant tax goes toward grants that are used to help attract more organizations and events to town," explains Ken Fisher, Park City's recreation services manager.

The city is also bidding for various sports organizations to make Park City their home headquarters. Sports organizations that choose Park City will augment the city's designation as the US Ski and Snowboard team's official training ground.

Park City is in a position to make serious bids because it has concentrated on maintaining its facilities to the "highest level," says Fisher. "For example, each field is prepped and inspected before any games are played on them."

Having a high-profile organization like the US Ski Team associated with the city has benefits beyond a resume check mark. The team keeps some of its training equipment in the city-owned Racquet Club and allows the Recreation Services Department to use it as part of its programming when the team's not using it.

This arrangement, says Fisher, allowed Park City to get into the fitness business. To make room for the team and its equipment, two existing racquetball courts were renovated into the fitness center.

"Our fitness center is booming, but we're somewhat limited by the room size and have maxed that out," say Fisher. "To maximize space, cardio equipment is located in a separate area of the facility. When we made the move some patrons were upset because they can't just jump from their cardio workout to weights. It's funny how in a fitness facility some people complain about having to walk from one end of the facility to the other!"

The fitness center is part of the city's Racquet Club, which also includes four indoor and seven outdoor tennis courts, an outdoor lap pool, cardio loft, a gymnasium, aerobics and spin studio, a hot tub and a brand new outdoor leisure pool. It comes in at just over 100,000 square feet and used to be a private facility that the city purchased on foreclosure.

The Park City Racquet Club opened the new outdoor leisure pool this summer. The new outdoor pool has a slide, lazy river and a sprayground. The pool starts at 18" deep (where the sprayground is), descends to six feet and ascends back up to three and a half feet deep where the slide dumps into the lazy river. The deeper portion was worked into the design to accommodate water aerobics.

The pool is closed during Park City's relatively long winters, but the school district has an indoor aquatics center. The school district and the Recreation Services Department collaborate on a number of facilities to minimize redundancy and maximize resources.

An example of this is the city's playing fields. The department maintains the fields and, though it's school district land, uses the fields for its own programming.

"Instead of the school district having fields that are empty most of the time, the city stepped up and developed playing fields for them. As part of the Interlocal Agreement the city maintains these fields and in return we get 300 hours in the school gymnasiums," says Fisher.

An additional area of collaboration has been with Basin Recreation, the county's parks and recreation department. The two departments jointly administer and run youth baseball, soccer and basketball programs for the greater Park City area. Fisher says that "this is another area where duplication of services has been eliminated.

We could each be running competing programs, but the city and county have worked together to run one great program."

In an effort to continue to promote regional cooperation, Park City's city council recently eliminated the fee differential on all recreation programs. They also extended the discounted resident rate for Racquet Club use to residents outside the city limits.

"The impetus for doing this is that the county has put a lot of money up for recreation. It was time to get rid of any bad blood that had developed between the city and county and work more collaboratively," explains Fisher.

"A facility in the planning stages is a joint ice rink where the city's putting up $2 million and the county's putting up $2 million. That's really the future direction for us -- to work together instead of building competing facilities. The county is also in the process of building an indoor field house that the city residents will be able to use without a fee differential."

Peak Programming

Recreation and Services administers and runs most of the youth and adult sports leagues in Park City. There are also many competitive leagues that are run by private organizations.

The Recreation Department helps these organizations by acting as a field broker. The youth leagues that Recreation Services run differ from the competitive leagues in terms of philosophy.

"Our philosophy is that all the kids play; it's about having fun. Private organizations run the more competitive leagues. It's worked well for us, because the more experienced and talented kids can go to the more intense programs. It allows other kids that stay in the recreational programs to step up and improve their play," say Fisher.

To help foster child development, Recreation Services joined forces with the National Alliance for Youth Sports, and started to run Start Smart programs, a parent-child sports instructional program for three to five year olds. Parents and kids attend and learn together, which has the dual benefit of providing sports skills to kids and teaching skills to parents so they feel comfortable practicing with their child.

"One of the biggest benefits of the program is that a child gains self-confidence and experience in the sport. This program eliminates the problem of a child's first exposure to organized sports and being placed on a team. That can be a very intimidating experience for a child," says Fisher.

"Another component of the program is to teach parents how to be good sports parents. It's not about going out and creating the next major league ball player. We tell the coaches that they've done a good job if all the kids who played sign up for the next year."

Karen Yocum, a recreation coordinator with Park City, created a program called Kook Koordinated Kids, which is based on the Start Smart model. In this program, kids work on large motor skills that are used in everyday life.

This is just one example showcasing the department's ongoing commitment to employee empowerment, or as Fisher calls it, "self-motivation."

"Sometimes adding new programs is a scary process, but the skatepark is a perfect example. The city built a skatepark, and shortly after it opened we were trying to figure out how to program it," says Fisher.

When the skatepark was first built, Fisher noticed a subtle intimidation factor. Subtle, because the kids weren't being bullied or made fun of, but the sheer skill of some would intimidate the less-skilled skaters. So the department began running paid clinics, closing the park to the public during those times (usually 8:30-10:30 a.m.).

"We had no skateboarders on staff. We're all traditional rec people," says Fisher. "We put an ad in the paper for skateboard instructors and we wondered who we'd end up with. We ended up hiring a great staff."

The participants are divided by skill level, rather than age, because, as Fisher points out, there are some six-year-old thrashers out there. Instructional skateboard clinics are now one of the biggest programs Recreation Services offers.

"Last year we put over 150 kids through five weeks of clinics. This summer we will offer eight weeks and expect all eight to sell out," says Fisher.

Adults community-wide are also encouraged to get involved. Recreation Services is now offering adult skateboard clinics. Fisher reports that the clinics have become an excellent revenue source as it becomes increasingly popular and inclusive.

The skatepark concept itself was tested with a smaller, portable park. Once that proved successful, the city built a $500,000, 20,000-square-foot below-ground cement park.

Another adult spin-off program came from the youth soccer league. Fisher says that given the success of the youth league there was no reason not to give the adults in Park City the same opportunity.

A six-on-six league was started with modified goals and rules. Now the department's running a spring and fall adult league. Fisher says the idea is to look at what the kids are doing and determine if it translates to adult programming.

Due to the success of the clinics and the fact that Fisher found himself spending time at the skatepark, he says, "Even I have taken up skateboarding. I'm hooked; I try to go every day. We encourage our staff to participate in all of our programs."

Several other staff members have taken up skateboarding and can be found spending free time at the park. Staff participation in recreation programming breeds success simply because they're able to see, objectively, what's working and what's not.

Fisher has been with the department since 1991, first as a soccer referee. In 1995 he became recreation coordinator and was named this spring as recreational services manager.

"How am I going to stay in touch with the participants as a manager? A lot of that is being an active participant in the programs," says Fisher. "Even though my job has shifted to the overall management of the Racquet Club and Recreation Department, as well as the political side, I'm still going to go out there and make sure everything's going well. That's where you get the most valuable input, which means being down at the front desk when people are checking in to play tennis, or out at the softball field, for instance."

Bryan BuchkoComment