Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Rethinking Our "Customer Relationship" with the Public: The Importance of Remembering Our Mission in Parks and Recreation

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Rethinking Our "Customer Relationship" with the Public: The Importance of Remembering Our Mission in Parks and Recreation

Article excerpt

When I was younger, I worked as the program director of a YMCA for a small town. While there, I saw the board and the administration make a few mistakes, some of which turned out to be critical ones. The most glaring among them was as much an act of omission as it was an act of commission: it was the act of forgetting. Forgetting who their base of support was, forgetting who their allies were.

In a rush to squeeze more money out of the already overburdened facilities and programs, the board--through its executive committee--pushed for new fee-based programs. Surely there was nothing wrong with this, but once the flow of new money started, there was no quenching the board's desire for more. Unfortunately for our little YMCA, the membership didn't see it the same way.

All the members knew was that their membership didn't entitle them to nearly as much as it used to. Instead, they were constantly sharing the YMCA with an ever-increasing set of adult users, many of whom took the facility for granted. The new users were merely customers buying a product; neither members of the facility nor of the community of friends and family it housed.

Both membership and community support fell precipitously. Soon, a private health care provider opened a state-of-the-art facility nearby and many of our most faithful friends started going there. Our new "customers" left for greener pastures even faster than the members. A few years later, while in graduate school in Texas, I found out that the little old YMCA had closed its doors. To me it was sad, like hearing about the death of an old friend long after his passing.

It is doubtlessly true that many things contributed to the old Y's demise, but I don't think its loss of community support or what led to it can be ignored. And while that YMCA operated as a private non-profit rather than as an agent of a local or state government, I believe the lessons of its story apply to the public sector, too.

I recall going to a favorite state park lake in the Midwest a couple of summers back. When I got there, I noticed that there were few fellow swimmers, despite the sultry summer weather. On the other band, formerly rare Canada geese were everywhere--and so was their waste (which, for the record, is definitely not an endangered feces). I would have told a lifeguard or a ranger, but none were in sight. I left without getting my trunks wet and I've never been back.

These days, park goers are likely to find not only a minefield of goose droppings on their way to erstwhile favorite swimming holes, but when they get there, they are likely to find the beach closed. Nature centers are open less, programming for kids has diminished, and park rangers are in such short supply in some areas that people may need to make an appointment to get arrested.

Thomas C. Kiernan, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, noted in a recent editorial that during his month-long sojourn through a dozen national parks this past summer, "one story remained the same"--fewer rangers and programs at every park he visited.

Recent budget crunches are often cited as the prime suspect that has left many of our public agencies reeling. But this phenomenon isn't,just a product of recent hard times; it goes much deeper. Instead, it is the result of 20 years of misguided management.

During this time, the dominant philosophy has been one where park and recreation managers are told to provide more services while getting a decreasing share of funding to do so. …

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