Finding Purpose

Editor's Note: Parks & Rec Business magazine continues the 2004 series focusing on... Everything H20, from pool equipment, safety, staffing and programming to profiles and perspectives on the latest aquatics facilities, water parks and splash parks in public parks and recreation.

As much as all of us like to use the term multi-purpose in a sentence, today's community and recreation centers really have to be that, and much more.

A prime example is a pair of new community centers at the Huron Valley Schools of Michigan, which serves the Village of Milford, and the Townships of Milford, Highland, White Lake and Commerce.

As noted over the course of 2004 here in Parks & Rec Business magazine, an important trend in parks and recreation has been increased intergovernmental cooperation to help maximize strained budgets.

Peak of Development

The school district took the lead and was able to pass a $104 million bond to renovate its schools across the board. New facilities were among the renovations, capped by two community centers at either high school.

Here, the interest of the school district and its children would be met, while also serving the public at large with awesome aquatics and fitness facilities. Huron Valley Schools would finally gap the water deficit.

Attendance and participation numbers would spectacularly prove the demand that had been bubbling in the community for aquatics. Paul DeAngelis, director of community schools and recreation facilities for Huron Valley Schools reports that community memberships at the two new facilities are running about 50 percent above projections, age-group swim programs are running at capacity and swim team participation at the two schools is running far ahead of expectations, among other indicators.

"We thought we might have just one girls' swim team between the two high schools, but both schools had more than 30 girls come out for the team, and we have more than 30 boys at each school beginning their swim season. We're seeing great numbers in terms of people wanting to get involved in all of our community and school swim programs, and that's without having an age-group program to feed us," says DeAngelis.

"It was important for us to have control over our age-group swim program -- the coaches, the philosophy, the level of competition, and so on. As we begin programming more in coming years, five years or so from now we might recognize that we need more pools because our community is going to demand that."

DeAngelis adds that numbers are also ballooning in non-aquatic venues, like youth basketball and fitness programs. In addition to two aquatics centers, the development at the two high schools included new field houses with gigantic, flexible gym space and 5,000 square feet of fitness space, including a plethora of cardio, machine and free weights.

Each community center is a mirror image of each other. The blueprint is the same, though each high school -- Milford and Lakeland -- has themed its leisure pool differently. Milford High School has a zoo theme and Lakeland has themed its space in outer space. The students at each school formed a committee that worked with the centers' architects to develop the themes.

The leisure pools have zero-depth entries with themed play structures by KoalaPlay Group. The Koala structures, complete with water cannons and other interactive features, also have climbable animals and jungle motifs at the zoo-themed pool and planets, space ships and Martians at the space-themed pool. Each pool has a themed slide; it's a snake at Milford and a comet at Lakeland. Each leisure pool also includes a current channel and a 15-person hot tub.

On the other side of the wall is the competition area, which seats about 350, encompasses eight lanes and a "wet" classroom. DeAngelis says that the schools have first priority, followed by the each school's athletic teams, and then the community.

There is no high-school programming in the leisure pool, and except for an elementary or junior-high class that comes over for a reward here and there, the leisure pool is always open to the community.

"Even when there are PE classes or swim practices we try to keep at least one lane open for our community. When you have eight lanes, you can certainly do that," says DeAngelis.

Ahead of the Curve

To one extent or another, everything is oversized. This purposeful sizing strategy helps accommodate everyone while creating flexibility for the future. In the field houses, for instance, each can be divided into three teaching or activity centers. And, with 5,000 square feet in the fitness areas, plus indoor running tracks, there is almost always room for anyone -- whether student or citizen -- to work out.

"One of the things we're experiencing is greater numbers of people enrolling in our community schools programs -- fitness and aerobics classes, for example. It's great to say you're selling X number of memberships, but programming is what really drives your revenue," says DeAngelis.

"We've greatly exceeded our membership expectations, but we're really looking at the programming side to generate revenue -- such as age-group swim programs, water aerobics, renting the facilities, and so on. Our biggest money-maker right now is birthday parties. We're averaging from six to ten birthday parties per week at each facility. We also do a lot of promotions with our local businesses to buy bulk memberships and passes."

As is the case across North America as more communities build multi-purpose recreation and community centers, staffing is job one. DeAngelis relates that Huron Valley made sure to overstaff when the facility first opened to members in July. This would ensure a quality experience with room to make staffing number changes as user patterns and operations dictated.

"Staffing has been the most difficult thing to handle -- trying to stay within our budget, but still offering our community what we promised. By having four bodies of water, plus items like the hot tubs, we're multiplying the problems we might have, so we're constantly dealing with issues having to do with start-up and operation."

Perhaps the most important item on each community center's punchlist was bringing maintenance staff up to par in this particular area.

"It was very important to us to not only use the training provided by our contractors, but to make sure that our main custodial people who would be working on the facility would be certified pool operators," says DeAngelis.

"We have at least two people at each site, plus our aquatic directors, who are certified. We meet every two weeks just on the maintenance side, to assure that we have consistency and that we're fully troubleshooting mechanical and operational issues."