Making Digital Dreams Reality: What Park and Recreation Departments Nationwide Are Realizing about the Digital Revolution

Article excerpt

It wasn't too long ago when the traditional filing system for park and recreation departments was paper, pen and maybe a shoebox. But these days, most agencies have forsaken their antiquated ways in favor of a more contemporary and efficient way of doing business--the computer database.

Steve Lewis is all too familiar with the shoebox filing system. His agency kept its customer records on index cards in shoeboxes until 1996, when Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia took the plunge and streamlined all of its point-of-sale systems. "We didn't have any kind of automated system to track customer usage," says Lewis, business office manager under the Park Authority's Park Services Division.

Arizona-based Meta Data Systems helped custom design an integrated database that would eventually add registration, reporting, accounting, touch-tone phone, pass sale membership and online registration modules to Lewis' system. "We've always been a pretty progressive agency," Lewis says. "It's just took us awhile to get going."

Information system technology does not have to cause a sudden dazed and confused reaction. Because of all the options available, research needs to be done about what type of services are important for your department.

In the case of Fairfax County, with a population of more than one million, a management inventory of nine recreation centers, six golf courses and 22,00O acres of park land, integration was the priority.

It took six years, but eventually all of the necessary databases were under one system. These "modules" are separate software systems with specific functions. A point-of sale module converts your computer system into a virtual cash register. A class registration module--one of the most frequently used amid park and recreation departments nationwide--takes the "shoebox" and transfers it into alphabetized computer files that can be cross-referenced, recorded and used for demographic data for presentations, brochures and grant proposals.

These benefits are certainly a welcome reward for Lisa Thomas Turpel, recreation division manager for Portland Parks and Recreation in Oregon.

Portland is another large park and recreation department that forced its residents to work twice as hard to use its services. "It was a system that was so un-customer oriented," Turpel says.

Before Portland went online in 1991 using ESCOM (now Class Software Solutions), every one of its 11 community centers, three art centers, 14 pools and 10,000 acres of park land were completely separate entities. If a mother of four wanted to sign up her children for various recreation classes, art classes and maybe an aerobics class for herself; she would have to contact every facility individually to make her reservations. And there would be no way to tell if these classes were full, or if she had a family discount--all of this was done manually by Portland's staff.

"It was frustrating for our staff," Turpel recalls. "We knew that within a very short period of time, people would say; 'aren't you computerized?'"

But getting the agency streamlined was not an easy transition, at least for the staff "I had people who just are it up and I had staff who were frightened of the box sitting on their desk," Turpel says. Her one regret for the department back in the early 1990s is that staff was not given enough training time with the new system. "We just sort of expected staff to take to it."

Another mistake Portland Parks and Recreation made was believing the new computer system would make the department more efficient. "Erroneously, we assumed that automating registration would just save us oodles of time," Turpel says. "In tact, it added another dimension."

When Portland automated, it never took the other options away from the community, such as mailing or calling in reservations. So in addition to providing technical support, staff also continued its regular duties of phone and data entry. …