Big Picture Programming

How Bend, Ore., has kept up and will keep up with population growth, changing demographics and the needs of its community at the Juniper Swim and Fitness Center

If you thought time travel created an unending paradox string (if you accidentally killed one of your ancestors, would you cease to exist?), how about building new parks and recreation facilities?

The potential paradox in any parks and recreation expansion is to maintain or even decrease subsidy levels while the costs to the agency to build and maintain the expansion increase.

In Bend, Ore., the paradox is at answered in large part by programming. To paraphrase Matt Mercer, who's the facility manager at the Juniper Swim and Fitness Center, Bend Metro Park and Recreation District, a facility is only as good as its programming, no matter how nice and modern it is.

Bend has been meeting and exceeding its goals with programming over the years, and is now in the process of bringing its primary aquatics and fitness facility up to its programming par.

The expansion of the Juniper Swim and Fitness Center is part of an ongoing effort jump-started in 2001 when the park and recreation district went through a planning and feasibility process that culminated in a master plan pointing to updating and adding on to its already-popular facility.

But again, much of the popularity in the past had to do with a dynamic and responsive programming philosophy. Mercer says Bend's master swim program is a sterling example of how Bend recreation tries to look at "big-picture" outcomes, rather than narrowly-focused traditional programming.

"It's been successful because we didn't take the traditional blueprint toward developing a masters program, which is essentially developing it as a club-based sport. What we found in talking to people is that the primary benefit people wanted was an opportunity to participate in practices where they could improve their swimming skills and fitness, and enjoy the camaraderie of training with others," says Mercer. "What was not a driving factor was competition or club environment. Rather than create it as a more exclusive club format, we created masters swimming as a drop-in exercise program. We have 12-15 practice times per week, it's integrated into our facility as a whole and many of the swimmers don't compete."

The program is one of the largest in the state, with more than 200 participants in a city with a population around 60,000. The program was able to shatter the perception that masters was only made for fast ex-swimmers, a perception that limits the program's market.

Mercer says continuous participant evaluation is crucial, as is trying new concepts first with test developmental programs. Primarily, it's a function of data -- both anecdotal and statistical.

Having a good handle on demographics, monitored closely through statistics compiled by various governmental agencies and the school district, has yielded valuable information to better serve the city's demographic bulges.

An influx of families with young children -- a trend certainly not relegated to Bend -- is one that deserves attention. However, dig into the numbers a bit and you find the changing dynamics of the family itself and how parks and recreation can better server this changing family.

"We found, for example, that the traditional summer format of kids taking swim lessons for two weeks every day was very difficult for families where both parents were working. We realized that there was a significant population that would prefer swim lessons a couple of times a week for four or five weeks," explains Mercer. "Understanding the changing and various needs of families, we've developed three entirely different schedule options for families in the summer to participate in lessons. They're more successful that way, because they're able to make it every day. Because of the amount of program evaluation we've done, we have really strong data on programs where there is demand to add capacity, and an idea of how much capacity, and those that don't have as much growth. When you're close to a program you're always an advocate for the program, but you really need to have the participation data and trends to understand where the program is really going."

Mercer says they've also noted a burgeoning homeschool population. Coupled with a rise in people who are working flexible schedules, often at home offices, Bend has been able to fill this need while filling some dead-time holes at the center with special programming geared toward this group.

Recovering Cost

Originally built as primarily an aquatics center, Juniper is undergoing a change that retains this focus while serving a broader range of interests.

The key term in the mix is fitness. In the center's ongoing expansion, the center will feature more fitness areas -- both in exercise equipment and fitness class opportunities.

Additionally, the aquatics expansion is emphasized toward multi-use. So, with its new 50-meter pool that replaces the original 56-year-old outdoor pool, it will have a removable cover for year-round use and more accessibility.

This will allow for more therapeutic and special needs programming, as well as more traditional lap swimming and swim lessons.

The center's expansion is a blend of old and new, with the new including an outdoor activity pool with a splash pad, childcare areas, locker rooms, various exercise, weight and cycle rooms and studios and multi-purpose areas.

This blend creates its own challenges, particularly in the area of HVAC and water circulation. The answer has been to upgrade the entire technology of the building so that everything is utilizing the same infrastructure -- such as pumps, filters and automated chemical controllers.

Things are certainly hopping at Juniper right now as the facility will double in the next year. Last year, the facility saw 290,000 paid visits, and revenues have gone from $250,000 just nine years ago to current levels around $1 million.

"We're projecting about a $100,000 decrease in our subsidy with the expansion. We feel like we're able to do that based on the fact that we're going to bring in substantially more revenues through increased participation, and won't have to proportionally build up our management and coordinator level staff overhead," says Mercer. "We'll essentially keep the same structure and try to put our resources more into the staff level positions that are directly instructing the programs and customer service. As programs grow and can support them we'll add more management level staff at that time. We're following a model where our program growth is going to pay 100 percent of the cost to run that and keep up with our current subsidy levels. In some programs we'll do better than that, and are planning to reduce our subsidy levels. We operate at a cost recovery of about 65 percent, and we're a fully sustained business unit. With our new model through expansion, particularly with adding significantly more fitness areas and the outdoor children's pool, the plan is to be more around a 75 percent cost recovery. A straight aquatics center is a tough way to make a living."