Maintenance: More Than Meets the Eye

One of the aspects of the parks and recreation world that I think is most misunderstood, and too often least considered, is maintenance. But it is one of the areas that should be at the front of everyone’s thought process when considering park facilities, activities or events.

I admit, when I first entered the parks and rec world in 1997 after a 20-year Marine Corps career, I didn’t recognize how critical an effective maintenance operation is to a successful parks operation. As I traveled from base to base around the country and the world, I would play ball at municipal fields, swim at base pools and lift weights in local gyms. I don’t recall ever once thinking about what went into getting them ready for me to use. When I took my kids to the playground, how the equipment was cared for never crossed my mind.

It didn’t take long in this job for me to realize how much I’d been taking for granted. I discovered that very seldom is anything “easy” when it comes to maintenance. I also discovered that until you walk in a maintenance man or woman’s shoes, you shouldn’t assume that anything is “simple and shouldn’t take that long to accomplish.”

The effort that goes into caring for baseball fields properly is a good example. When you stand on the player’s side of the field, all you see is dirt and grass, baselines and foul poles. But when you reverse your perspective and see it from the maintenance side of the field, you get a whole new picture.

It isn’t just dirt--it’s a specific mixture of sand and soil that works best to absorb moisture and remain safe and playable. It’s not just grass--it is turf grass that is specially bred for the climate and ground conditions where the fields are located. Those aren’t just baselines--they are a design feature of an infield that require careful manicuring to keep them straight and safe, without a “lip” forming that will trip runners and propel baseballs into noses. Those aren’t just foul poles--they are an important part of the game that need to be specifically placed and properly maintained.

Indoor facilities have their own unique set of challenges. If you ever want to find out how important proper preventive maintenance is, experience the backlash when the air conditioning or heat goes out and you have to close the facility for repairs. Patrons who never gave a thought to what it takes to keep the HVAC running will suddenly be giving you advice, probably in an irritated tone.

Then there are the myriad odd maintenance issues that come about when planners and visionaries build magnificent structures or parks without involving, at the front end of the project, the maintenance professionals who will have to keep it functioning long after the designers, engineers and contractors have gone on to their next conquest.

Examples abound: how do you clean an air supported structure that covers 20,000-square-feet of swimming pools? What do you do when your covered, open-sided roller hockey rink is getting dangerously hot in the summertime? What happens when your quaint, multi-level, three-pond community park begins to get taken over by an invasive aquatic weed? How do you manage to paint the inside of a popular community facility that is in use generally 24/7/365 without interfering with programming?

When I say you have to walk in maintenance shoes to understand it, I speak from experience. When I first took this job, we were re-building a softball field. The sod that was in the outfield was in decent shape and we needed some grass in a barren part of another passive park.

So I, in my “newbee” naiveté, told my maintenance manager, “Let’s cut the sod from the outfield and put it in the park.” We had a sod cutter, it sounded pretty easy and I said I’d get out there and help do it.

Long story short, after a couple days of horsing the sod cutter around, loading heavy rolls of sod onto a flatbed truck, unloading and placing them at the park, I looked at the outfield and we had barely made a dent in the acres of remaining sod. The effort had about worn out our small crew, and me! It was then I began to realize, rarely is anything involving maintenance ever easy.

So, now, when an elected official, special-interest group or even staff begins discussions about a new facility, park, project, activity or whatever, the first words out of my mouth are: “What will the operations and maintenance costs be? What is your plan to take care of this 5, 10 or 15 years from now? What will the funding source be? Who is going to do the work?”

I am all for improvements and additions and progress, but unless the long-term maintenance and operations cost (manpower, funding, equipment, supplies) is factored in at the front end of any project, an otherwise good idea could end up being an anchor around a maintenance staff’s neck. Ultimately, it could become a liability rather than an asset.

Now, when I speak to individuals or community groups to tell them why their parks and recreation department is important to them, I make it a point to tell them what we have, how we take care of it and who does the work. I show them how many hours we spend in maintaining fields, facilities and parks. I tell them how long it takes to set up and take down sites before and after special events (another specialized form of maintenance). And these days, I make a point to let them know we’re attempting to find ways to do the same amount of work with a smaller crew and smaller budget.

Randy Gaddo , a retired Marine, is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation, library) in Peachtree City, Ga. Contact him at (770) 631-2542 or e-mail