Planning a New or Renovating an Old Recreation Center?

October 1, 2014, Department, by Carl Guarnieri

Planning to renovate or build a new recreation center can be a daunting task, but it’s made easier with the proper preparation.Perhaps no community project raises as much excitement and trepidation as does the planning of a new or the renovation of an older recreation/community center. The economics of city budgets during recent times have placed such projects, if not in danger, then at the very least under scrutiny. No such project can begin without a realistic approach as to how it should be planned and a close look at the true costs associated with these facilities, which often operate seven days a week.

In 34 years as a city athletic director and recreation director, I have had the opportunity to be involved in opening and operating two new community centers. I wanted to share my thoughts and suggestions to any city considering such a facility. 

In the planning stage, the one adage that should be followed is “Form must follow function.” In other words, the building must be energy-efficient using the latest LEED recommendations, it must be designed in order to use minimum staff efficiently, it must have versatile spaces for many uses and it must offer a welcoming architecture. 

Community involvement is important, but not every request for a preferred use can be accepted. Emphasis has to be on the activities and spaces that generate the most interest and revenues. This stage is critical because lines (walls) can be erased on paper — not so when in the building phase. To accomplish all this, it is imperative that the people who will be running the facility be involved in every step and have substantial input.

Once the bricks-and-mortar phase begins, it is important for the city to be represented at every meeting of the architect/builder team. Value engineering allows the project to proceed in steps, with each step having a budget. Any savings realized in a step can be applied to the next step with potentially more funds available for the last step, which is for furnishings and equipment — what your members will see and use. During this process, the appropriate staff can be involved in meetings. The aquatics director should see the installation and operating mechanics for the pool equipment, the building manager should take photos and make notes on the placement of all electrical and plumbing connections, and the custodial manager should make sure custodial closets are placed where needed and sized large enough for equipment and supplies. The list continues, but the point again is that the staff who are left behind to run the facility after all the designers and builders are gone are familiar with the facility and comfortable running it.

These projects, if not well thought-out and planned properly, can — and have — caused immense harm to communities. People have lost careers over them and resident backlash can be substantial if the project is not priced reasonably. There is a fine line between generating revenues and keeping membership costs reasonable.

When I lecture to college seniors, I refer to this as running a “quasi business.” Yes, we have to generate revenues to offset costs and not cause a drain on city budgets, but we also have an obligation to offer affordable membership rates and a duty to offer programs and events to special-needs, senior and family populations. These focuses are what makes these facilities true community centers.

How are we to do this? We have to have a clear understanding of the cost to operate the facility, which should begin in the design/development phase. As you plan your blueprint of the facility, determine where and when staffing is assigned. During this phase, you can set the opening and closing days and times and begin the process of setting up classes and events, all the while setting up job descriptions and wage scales so the biggest part of our budget — payroll — is set. Next is to seek help with utility costs based on proposed equipment and hours of operation. Funds have to be allocated to capital improvements as this facility will likely be the most used of any city building, and the inevitable wear and tear on the building and its equipment will take place.

Perhaps the hardest part is setting membership and rental rates. Many communities, in an effort to please constituents, will set rates so low that any recovery of costs will be impossible, while some communities, in an effort to recover costs, will set them so high it creates resentment and low membership. Neither serves your community well in the long term. 

The true cost to operate the center has to be established early in the process, then city leaders have to determine at what level will recovery be acceptable. What percentage of the planning, design and construction costs of the facility will the center be charged with recovering? Based on this decision, the next question will be how many members can you expect? How many residents and nonresidents will join based on the rates you set? History shows that membership may drop off after the first year, so you will have to take this into account. You may also choose to offer discounts for youth or seniors. These are all questions that have to be answered before the building goes up, all based on as much information as you can assimilate.

I can attest that these centers are truly assets to a community; they are what residents refer to as “quality of life” resources. Are they worthwhile to have? Yes. Must they be well-planned and thought-out? Absolutely.

Carl Guarnieri is a retired park and recreation professional who most recently served as Recreation Director for Middleburg Heights, Ohio.