Pick up a newspaper or watch any of the 24-hour news channels long enough and you’re sure to find a story about how Michigan has been–and continues to be–one of the economically hardest-hit areas in the current recession. The restructuring of the auto industry, unemployment, declining property values and home foreclosures are only a few of the tough challenges facing residents. Local governments and the public sector continue to face wave after wave of budget cuts to important and essential services, like police and fire, public works and parks and recreation. How can a department survive these difficult times and convince local officials and community residents that it offers services worth saving? It can do this with a little creativity and some old-fashioned problem-solving.
In February 2010, Canton Leisure Services employees attended an educational session at the Michigan Recreation & Park Association’s Annual Conference. Surrounded by hundreds of fellow professionals who are equally committed to saving recreation agencies across the state, Dr. John Crompton, Professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M University, spoke about the importance of positioning ourselves as more than simply the experts in playground games and swim classes. Sadly, this is a lesson that many of us have learned the hard way over the last several years. More importantly, Dr. Crompton noted that any organization must position itself as an absolutely essential service and devote most of its time, energy and resources to address issues considered most important to the health and happiness of the residents. Gone are the days of trying to be everything to everyone … we must be more than fun and games. We must strategically decide to be community problem solvers!
Inspired by Dr. Crompton’s words, staff members returned to work energized and committed to this new way of thinking! We held meetings and involved staff at every level, and looked for input from recent community-wide survey and focus groups. After much talking and listening, we were able to identify a lengthy list of issues that were clearly important to residents. While we would have liked to tackle them all, we knew that in order to employ the new strategy, we needed to identify only one or two that were at the top of the community’s list. From this evaluation, a new strategy and a new marketing campaign were born! “Greener Days and Healthier Ways” was coming to Canton!
Environmental education, conservation and advocacy have always been a priority for the department and for the field. Offering programs, classes and opportunities to residents to live longer, healthier, more-active lifestyles has been on the agenda all along. We now recognize that both childhood and adult obesity have reached epic proportions, creating health issues for families and driving up the cost of health insurance … and we are here to help. We now know that carbon emissions and rapidly filling landfills are frightening concerns for parents who worry about the planet their children will inherit … and we are here to help. We are saying it loudly and proudly.
How Do We Help?
First, we didn’t create all new programs and events to meet these highlighted priorities. We did, however, creatively tweak the way we communicated the benefits of existing programs. Following are snapshots of some of the programs and events that best help demonstrate a commitment to “Greener Days and Healthier Ways.”
Random Acts Of Fitness
Imagine a van full of noisy and excited parks and rec staff cruising the streets with bags full of swag and marketing materials, (like the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes Prize Patrol), who jump out and reward residents for making healthy lifestyle choices (playing catch, riding bikes, or walking the dog). That’s how our Random Acts of Fitness Prize Patrol works–we “bust” families, friends and neighbors of all ages for their efforts to get outside and become healthy. We take photos of them and post the “mugshots” on our social media pages for them to see and share with others. We want folks to understand that there are rewards for living a healthy lifestyle! In Canton, we make those rewards slightly more tangible with this positive-reinforcement and incentive-based program. It continues to garner media attention, and has earned the department a 2010 Innovative Recreation Programming Award from the Michigan Recreation & Park Association.
Take A Hike
A 2009 community survey reported that 70 percent of respondents reported trails as the highest need for parks and recreation facilities. Community input, creative partnerships, innovative planning and grant dollars, as well as dedicated volunteers, board members, officials and staff members, helped launch the Lower Rouge River Recreation Trail System. This multi-phase project, which will eventually create a four-mile stretch of accessible connectivity throughout the township, has already become home to hiking, biking and cross-country skiing–all in the heart of this suburban community. To increase awareness of this haven for both nature- and fitness lovers, Canton Leisure Services promotes events like “Run the Rouge,” “Sound Garden,” (a unique strolling concert where Mother Nature meets beautiful music) and “River Day” (a community effort to educate and preserve creek and watershed quality in the area).
The List Goes On …
We invite residents to step off of the treadmill and out of the air conditioning to experience “The Big Green Gym.” They can go online to see or print out the Heritage Park Trail Workout Guide, or experience one of the fitness classes that take place in various parks. “Sunrise Yoga” and “Tai Chi at Sunset” have become resident favorites!
A farmers’ market is held every Sunday–May to October–and offers a free walking club; educational classes about healthy gardening and cooking with vegetables; and opportunities for garden-pot and tray recycling. The market is located adjacent to 12 raised, community organic-gardening plots that residents can rent, tend to, and harvest.
A partnership with the local public library branch has led to “Eco-Week,” seven days in April filled with free opportunities to learn about environmental issues, with tips and solutions. We are even trying to “walk the talk” through some facility improvements, like installing compact fluorescent light bulbs and LED lights, which will provide increased energy efficiency and contribute to $17,000 in electrical and $5,000 in maintenance costs annually.
We haven’t abandoned our kickball or soccer games, and the seniors can still find a game of cards at the community center most days of the week because we understand that those programs maintain their individual and social benefits for the participants. However, we toot our own horn much louder now, using our tagline every chance we get, and on every promotional piece we distribute. Residents are reminded of the importance of greener and healthier lifestyles today and in the future. More importantly, we remind them that we are the ones who are going to help them get there.
Jennifer Provenzano is a Recreation Specialist for Canton Leisure Services, which is a CAPRA Accredited Department and a 2008 NRPA Gold Medal Award Recipient located in Canton Township, Mich. She can be reached at email@example.com