Site Planning

By Dylan Packebush

“Planning” traditionally refers to a hierarchy ranging from comprehensive planning to master planning to site planning. Site planning can take the form of specialty plans like park-site master plans or recreation-feasibility studies, which contain site design and some type of operations and management report. While these site plans are crucial elements that move projects forward, they don’t always communicate or guide the evolution of the site after it comes online.

Illustration: © Can Stock Photo / kraphix

Illustration: © Can Stock Photo / kraphix

“So what’s missing?” you might ask. To me, it’s taking a page from the for-profit industry and writing a site plan like a traditional business plan. (I will be clear here and say that I am not advocating for an additional plan in the hierarchy. I am advocating for a shift in thinking or expectation for what information is needed in a site plan.)

Now you might be asking, “Well, how do I do that?” Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.

I’ve read my fair share of case studies, ranging from consumer products like straws to department stores. While it is often an exercise in patience, learning how others have dealt with pertinent issues can add perspective when engaging your own opportunities.

A Case Study
GreenPlay, LLC, a management-consulting firm that works primarily with parks, recreation, and related agencies, worked with Arizona State Parks (ASP) to create a business plan for the redevelopment of the former Sandpoint Marina at Cattail Cove State Park.

APS sits at the southern end of Lake Havasu, and is one of the only public lands in a high-traffic tourist destination. Until recently, APS contracted operations out to a vendor, but then saw an opportunity for a site within the system to potentially generate high revenues. The issue was that the system was not in the business of operating a destination park. The site—having not been renovated throughout the previous contract—was significantly outdated compared to what users expect at sites in the market area; however, it offered a high number of passive recreational opportunities (e.g., wildlife, hiking trails, day-use picnic areas) that attracted users.

A Change In Thinking
The park system saw an opportunity to provide an accessible alternative to the tourist attractions that surrounded Cattail Cove. It needed a plan to not only transform the site into a source of higher revenue but also an approach to integrate its operations into the service profile of the department.

Align The Project With The Mission And Vision
This key piece is often forgotten in business strategy. Organizations and agencies need to define who they are before they can set out to offer services. Without this approach, they are often left chasing target markets, offering fad products/services, and struggling to remain stable in a volatile marketplace. In the case of Cattail Cove State Park, it was important that this site represent the mission of the state park system to serve the public. It could not just follow other attraction areas and nearby sites; while this could be looked upon as a hindrance and time consumer, it should be viewed as a key differentiator.

Bring Experts To The Table
To make the best decisions, you need the best information. Simply making decisions based on intuition can find success, but comes with high risk. Experts from around the country were sought. Harbor/marina operators, RV-rental agencies, landscape architects, visitor and tourism bureaus, recreation-facility operators, concessionaires, the public, etc., were brought to the table to discuss the ins and outs of the site in a no-stones-left-unturned effort. Engaging experts like these first allows a project team to define a clear path toward the end goal, while also having the resources available to manage any hiccups along the way.

Define The Target Market
This step is also often overlooked or, when it is taken, it’s not done to the degree necessary. Target markets are a critical component in effective business strategy. The goal of new ventures should be to build a foundation of early adopters who can influence other potential users. When businesses set out trying to attract everyone, they struggle to use their resources in the most effective way with everything from products and services to essential business functions like budgeting and marketing.

“A real ‘aha’ moment was the method and result of determining the future customer profile. An existing Lake Havasu City (20 miles north of Cattail Cove) tourism study indicated the current market area extended hundreds of miles along the interstate highways to LA, Tucson, Phoenix, and the Las Vegas area, versus the typical circle drawn around the site,” says Pat O’Toole, Principal and Project Manager at GreenPlay. “The demographic within this area was made up of 75 percent millennials, yet the park was currently catering to baby boomers. This told us that amenities like cabin rentals, boat rentals (including houseboats), OHV rentals, etc., would better draw new users rather than needing to have your own camper or boat. It is a totally new business model catering to a different type of user, but it will still serve baby boomers.”

Being in a resort area and relying upon temporary visitors is a challenge. Defining target markets by demographic (millennials), geographic (Southern California), psychographic (family activities), and behavioral (boating and camping amenities) characteristics enabled Arizona State Parks to have a deeper understanding of who they were trying to provide services for and where to communicate their value proposition (the value within the market that a consumer will receive).

Define Core Services And A Service Profile
The concept of core services is unique in parks and recreation due to the public tax structure. Core services are services that would be provided at the site if the site didn’t necessarily have the ability to generate funding. In our industry, the example would be items like greenspace at the park or trails—items that would be expected to be covered through tax subsidy.

A site’s service profile is the combination of its core services and whatever additional services are being provided. Since the additional services are optional, an agency can determine ones that are a priority based on its mission, values, and target markets; other services that may be a good fit—but are not essential to the site—could be added in a phased approach or as otherwise able.

With many resort areas around, it would be easy for ASP to plan its site based on the other service profiles available to the market at nearby Lake Havasu. But knowing that the parks were trying to attract younger families and stay true to their mission and values, many of these options, such as casinos or other nightlife amenities, were not suitable for that site.

Design For Operations
After determining the service profile for the site, site design should be considered with special attention paid towards operations. Traditional site planning often starts with an attractive design. Decisions are made based on the WOW factor of an architect’s ability to draw an appealing picture, or fit a number of amenities in a given area. Understanding the service profile and operational needs of a site can help determine efficiencies in operations or other cost savings by informing design, staffing, pricing and marketing strategies, etc., which just might lead to the ability to pay for those WOW items.

The Arizona State Parks site contained many revenue-generating amenities but was also unique in having opportunities and connections to hiking and mountain biking or wildlife viewing close by. The design of the site needed to provide users with a high-quality marina and camping experiences while balancing the serenity and beauty of opportunities in the natural park setting.

Project Revenues And Expenses
Having a clear picture of the vision for a site also leads to a more accurate financial picture. A business would never be able to secure a loan from a bank based solely on the above picture. Banks require a business plan complete with financial projections. When thinking about using public funds to supplement the start-up of a revenue-generating site, the parks and recreation industry needs to do the same.

What To Take Away
Providing this level of detail has allowed Arizona State Parks to pass the site and concept plan through many levels of decision makers because it was easy to communicate where investments of tax dollars would be made, and why they were being made. While this case study is specific to a state-park site in the southwest corner of the country with existing infrastructure, it is actually about the strategic growth of an organization, a challenge that every agency faces on a daily basis. These principles (aligning project with mission/vision, bringing experts to the table, identifying the primary benefactor, identifying the benefits, designing for efficiency, and calculating accurate projections) are the key to any development process. They can (and should be) applied to decisions regarding day-to-day operations, programming, facility and site design/use, and partnerships/sponsorships, to name a few.

Regardless of where it is applied, using a business-planning methodology will help an agency make better business decisions, and communicate the process and rationale to the public.

Dylan Packebush is a Project Consultant at GreenPlay, LLC, and a consultant in parks, recreation, and open space. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Recreation from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and a Master of Business Administration with a concentration in Sports Business from the University of Oregon. Reach him at or (303) 483-1850.