Recreation Centers & COVID-19: Predicting the Future

At the end of 2021, BRS hosted a virtual roundtable with recreation professionals who operate BRS-designed facilities. Multiple attendees joined the Zoom event, where we provided a pre-COVID look at facility benchmarking, then shared the supplemental COVID-19 survey results. We also invited three guest speakers who presented their viewpoint on operating a community recreation center in the pandemic to the group. We rounded up their stories to share the collective experiences with our wider audience and included some of Jenna’s predictions for the future.

Apex Center, Arvada, Colorado

21 years since opening, the Apex Center in Arvada, CO, continues to impress, both in size and resiliency. At 168,000 sf the center is massive, and they are constantly striving to keep it awesome, with outstanding cleaning protocols in place even pre-pandemic, as well as investing capital dollars to maintain it (fresh paint, flooring, etc.) all to offer their guests a high-quality experience.

Apex Center closed four months in 2020, during which it was repurposed as a childcare facility for essential workers – meaning every possible room was licensed for childcare. Hillary Roemersberger, Director of Recreation Services for Apex Park and Recreation District, says “the effect was a shift in customers using other, smaller facilities in the district and diversifying where they exercised.”

“The effect was a shift in customers using other, smaller facilities in the district and diversifying where they exercised.”

– Hillary Roemersberger

Facility managers in the district were tasked with crystal ball budgeting, developing a conservative and optimistic budget for 2021. The good news is that Apex was above where they thought they would be with their optimistic budget. However, there has been a significant shift in revenue. Admissions and pass sales are way down, but programming is “roaring back.” Hillary says programming is currently 70% of revenue, and admissions around 20% – the complete opposite of what BRS Facility Benchmarking data has shown over the last 5 years!

Hillary noted drop-in use at the facility slowly returned, but then the County re-implemented the mask mandate in late November. Daily attendance rises and falls with the removal and reinstatement of local mask mandates.

Like every agency that laid off temporary workers, the district thought those workers would come back – and they haven’t. This accounts for part of their robust budget with about $500,000 in savings from temporary staff. However, you cannot run programs without people! Every agency at the Roundtable agreed – part-time staffing does not look anything like 2019. Most indicated they will have to raise fees to cover increases in hourly wages needed to attract part-time staff.

Hillary notes March 2022 will be very telling. Annual passes were put on hold in March 2020 and re-activated in March 2021. The big question is, will people renew in March 2022? As of this blog date, Apex leadership is analyzing first-quarter data.

Apex is looking at cost recovery through a lens “like never before” and charging for programs/services that they didn’t in the past, which in part means educating the public on their value. The district recently shifted its operating philosophy from a facility-based to program-based cost recovery model. Ever the industry leaders, it will be interesting to learn if other agencies follow Apex Park & Recreation District’s lead.

Using her own crystal ball, Jenna predicts a laser-focused look at cost recovery continuing across special districts and municipalities.

Opening during Shut Down, Lessons from Lewisville's Thrive

Thrive Multigenerational Center in Lewisville, TX, opened in October 2020, pushed back from the spring largely due to COVID-19.

Thrive pre-sold memberships prior to opening. Later, once it opened and as the pandemic continued, they needed to limit the number of people coming into the facility, so they stopped selling day passes, allowing only members to access the facility. After COVID restrictions were lifted, Thrive once again started selling daily passes. Most guests using the facility had already become members, so the number of day passes sold was nominal.

In March 2022, Thrive switched to a membership-only admission policy where members can purchase day passes for their guests but the guest must be with the member. Thrive Facility Manager, Erika Tang, notes that the change allows them to better serve members, better control access to the building, and increases safety for both members and staff. It made us wonder if an existing facility (one that didn't open during COVID) could be as restrictive with patron access. It helps that Thrive charges a very reasonable fee for annual memberships for both residents and non-residents.

Annual memberships are $25 for resident youth and seniors and just $210 for adults. In comparison, in Facility Benchmarking, an average adult resident annual membership nationally is $380, average youth $240 and average senior $260. Lewisville’s admission fees allow for the greatest participation, and their cost recovery philosophy for Thrive is to be accessible for all citizens.

With Facility Benchmarking, we request operational information after the center has operated for a full year, so Thrive is part of the BRS Benchmarking group this year (providing 2021 data). Erika notes it has been a growing year, coming out of the peak of the pandemic and other extreme weather-related impacts in central Texas. It will be interesting to learn how this 88,000 sf multigenerational center will perform in 2022. Erika and the Thrive team hope that 2022 will be more reflective of what “normal” operations will be. We couldn’t agree more Erika!

We also predict that modifying facility access, as it relates to safety and security as well as to capacity, is a trend that will continue in community recreation.

“I’ll tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly about our COVID experiences.”

– Justin Mashburn

Lessons from the Western Slope

Montrose, CO, opened the 80,000 sf Montrose Community Recreation Center (CRC) in 2017. Having a facility of this size is exceptional for a small, western slope community of roughly 20,000 people. As Facilities Manager Justin Mashburn notes, “We’re pretty lucky!”

When Jenna reached out to Justin to be a guest speaker at the COVID-19 Roundtable, he said, “Sure, I’ll tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly about our COVID experiences.” [Cue whistling intro to the Clint Eastwood classic]

The Good: CRC started live-streaming games for adult and youth sports to viewers (e.g., grandparents) across the country. It’s been so successful; they’re keeping it up. Staff and patrons have a cleaning mindset now, and CRC has been able to maximize the lifespan of some equipment due to everyone taking better care, cleaning, and maintaining the equipment – this has helped reduce some capital expenses, and in turn to balance the budget. The COVID closure allowed some positive “re-sets.” For example, they were able to change their hours and close at 8 pm, previously was 9 pm with little use during the last hour. (By the way, our BRS Mantra regarding operating hours: it’s always easier to ADD hours than to take them AWAY). Finally, CRC adjusted some program areas that, pre-pandemic, had been robustly staffed, shifting them to cover other program areas.

The Bad: (but kinda Good) An increase in daily pass revenue, which they attribute to people being hesitant to commit to an annual membership (annual is where they make the most revenue). In 2019, CRC saw an average of 835 people per day, currently it is 70% of that (585 people per day). 2021 pass sales are at 65% from 2019.

The Ugly: Mask enforcement was brutal in the small community of Montrose. CRC staff implemented the Governor’s mask mandate but lacked support from County Commissioners. The unfortunate reality is that mask mandates became politicized and while CRC staff followed State and CDC protocols, Justin said staff had daily battles with customers trying to adhere to the mandate.

Justin is optimistic about the future (and so are we!) He notes people seem more flexible and are grateful to gather and be at CRC.

BRS is grateful for Justin, and all the facility operators, who participate in benchmarking and shared their experiences during the virtual Roundtable.

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