Sunny Side Up

From Jupiter to Boca Raton and over to the Everglades, Palm Beach County is larger than Delaware.

The county's geographic and ecological diversity is unique, going from white-sand beaches and coastal inlets to the famous swamps and marsh lands of the Everglades, with everything (excepting mountains) in between.

Multiply in a healthy population growth factor and the formula is ever-changing, keeping the county's parks and recreation department on its proverbial toes. Keeping those toes free from the everyday missteps of the daily dance has been an ongoing goal over the years.

Diverse Development

"There is a significant amount of publicly-owned land in the county, but in the past a lot of it has been locked up, and the same has been true with the schools," explains Dennis Eshleman, the county's director of parks and recreation.

"We've been breaking down those barriers, and getting actively involved in the design and development of these public lands. You have to get all the players together and coordinate that to the best of your ability. It's a challenge to maintain those relationships and cooperative efforts. Oftentimes you're not familiar with the other agency's goals and objectives, but once you understand those you can find areas of common interest and effort."

Eshleman sees an increased interest in a healthy balance between passive and active use areas that preserve and protect the county's resources while maximizing the public's enjoyment of those resources.

"I think there will be more emphasis on recreation using various types of environmental lands. We have some environmental sections within our parks department, but our Environmental Resources Management Department has purchased over 30,000 acres of environmental lands, and we work well together creating public uses on these lands from the standpoint of both eco-tourism and local use," says Eshleman.

"We're looking at building various types of trails, because we see an increased demand for this type of use. The key is to put together a number of partnerships using other agencies' lands for various recreation purposes. It depends on the agencies, who's in charge at each and where the interest lies. In the past, there have been concerns about liability, but we've been able to resolve those concerns in working with agencies who control these lands to develop specific use policies that really open up a good portion of their lands for public use."

The department, for instance, has just completed the first phase of an island park development, a land owned by three different governmental agencies.

The 90-acre island, which now has campgrounds and picnicking, will also include basins with floating docks, a marina with slicks, fishing piers, observation towers, snorkeling basins, a shallow lagoon with white beaches and other beach and boating amenities. An interactive waterfall is being constructed that is envisioned as a place for patrons to play and rinse off at, as opposed to a typical beach shower.

A historical Coast Guard facility originally built in the 1920s is being restored, as well as an old bomb shelter that was built for John F. Kennedy when he was President. Add all this to white beaches and palm trees and you're looking at a parks and recreation paradise.

With responsibility for 13 beach parks and five aquatic complexes, the parks and recreation department is especially diligent with its lifeguard training program.

This diligence was highlighted this past year when the department won the 2004 United States Lifesaving Association National Championship and placed first in the 2003 ClinCon International Championship, Basic Life Support Division.

The winning regimen includes daily training with an hour of training and preparation before the guards hit the stands, rigorous physical conditioning standards regardless of age or gender and very clear and specific standards.

Overall, the county's parks and recreation department employs around 1,100, with about 350 contract employees and a network of more than 4,000 volunteers.

Inside the county itself are about 37 incorporated areas, representing about 50 percent of the county's population. Part of the county parks and recreation department's mission is to help develop parks in unincorporated pockets so that the areas become more attractive for eventual incorporation. Of course, the department's primary mission is to provide quality regional facilities, parks and programs that serve the entire county.

Developing Demand

There are about 80 parks in the county system, with a number of regional parks that are typically 250 acres or larger. The regional parks usually have 10-12 athletic fields at each, with gymnasiums, community centers, various court facilities, playgrounds, with some water parks, spraygrounds, skateparks and other unique facilities cropping up as demand requires. The department is also responsible for many specialty facilities, like museums, botanical gardens and nature centers.

Eshleman estimates the county has 130 or so athletic fields, with many more in the works.

"It won't be long before we're over 200 athletic fields. We've established good relationships with our school board that didn't always exist, so we try to do cooperative planning where we locate parks and athletic fields adjacent to schools with mutual use agreements to ensure optimal utilization of one another's facilities," explains Eshleman.

"We think having maintenance in the same department is very important in order to make sure we're meeting the same goals and objectives across our park system. We have so many fields that we've changed to one common turf, and we have separate crews that do nothing but rehabilitate fields. Due to the tremendous year-round demand for athletic fields we have to make sure that we schedule closely with the recreation staff so that each field has a certain down time every year, which can be very difficult in south Florida."

Eshleman adds that major rehabilitation, repair work and training is centrally coordinated, but day-to-day maintenance is de-centralized through five districts within the county.

The county runs two golf courses, with two under construction and two leased to municipalities. The golf courses, along with museums and other like attractions, plus the waterparks, are dependent on revenue and must be self-sustaining.

"In many cases I find that collecting revenue can be cost-prohibitive. At our beach parks we provide parking for free, for that very reason, plus we feel there are certain things the public should not have to pay for, such as access to our natural resources," says Eshleman.

"A lot of our products have been getting better, as we put money into them and as they mature. It's really all about great customer service and making people glad they're here. The managers train very heavily on customer service, and that's the focus throughout the department. We believe the tremendous support our department receives from the community is directly related to the quality of parks and services we provide.

"For that reason, we are careful in the expenditure of funds that we don't stretch the dollars so far that we cheapen the product and lose that support. The important thing is that you're flexible and responsive to the demand when it comes."

This flexibility has led to the development of many unique and diverse facilities, such as the aforementioned sprayparks, waterparks and skateparks, plus dog parks, a giant Boundless playground center, Japanese botanical gardens, a therapeutic recreation complex and an upcoming $10 million equestrian center.

Eshleman adds that this flexibility needs to be ongoing, using the model of amusement parks, who are always adding new rides and activities in their parks, while relatively little infrastructure change is required.

"For 30 years our population has been growing anywhere from 25,000 to 35,000 per year. That's a large amount of people dropping into the county every year. It causes significant demand for additional parks and the change in demographics from a more senior population to families with kids has increased the overall demand for more active facilities," says Eshleman.

"Everyone who lives down here is aware of how fast things are developed, and the need to secure future park properties while they are still available and to optimize the utilization of existing public lands."