Two years ago Plainfield, Ind. had a great plan for updating its parks, but no department specifically devoted to parks and recreation.
Now it’s in the midst of a fast-track multi-million-dollar renovation and construction.
With new state-of-the-art recreational facilities and miles of trails being planned, the town was ready to hand over its vision to a full-time parks and recreation director, which appeared in the form of Chuck Prince.
Prince is a 20-year parks and rec veteran who enthusiastically took the challenge. His job would be to build the new department from the ground up.
It didn’t hurt that the community was solidly behind the plan, and that the local food and beverage tax would help feed the need for new recreation facilities and programs. Additional funds would come from grants and the sale of bonds.
Fortunately, the cash flow has continued uninterrupted, in part through the community’s backing and the fact that the new department has lived up to its promises.
“We’ve been told by the state that why we’re so successful at getting grant money is that when we’re awarded grant money we actually do what we say we’re going to do and we get it done quickly,” says Prince.
“They know when Plainfield submits a grant that we’re serious about it and we’re going to get it done.”
Though not funded by grant money, Plainfield’s new skatepark is a good example of the department’s dedication to getting things done quickly, efficiently and economically, while maintaining an extremely high quality standard.
“The skatepark was not on the original plan. It’s the typical story that a group of about 50 kids came in to a meeting. I knew they were coming and put them on the agenda. They did their research, came in with a spiral-bound presentation and a video tape and gave our council a presentation. It was so well prepared and professional that the council asked me to form a committee and start researching the issue, which we did,” says Prince.
“Our park was standing up and being used within a year of that meeting.”
Prince and his staff (currently three full-time employees) came back with a three-phase proposal. The first phase would require a budget of $250,000, and was recently completed for about $235,000.
Prince credits a thorough plan that convinced the town council to use money from the beverage tax to get it done.
“We didn’t throw out a slab, put a fence around and put the ramps up. We have a nice Poligon 36′ hexagonal shelter, tables, trees around it and it’s supervised,” says Prince.
“There’s often adult supervision, and if the adults aren’t there we have a staff of high-school kids trained in first aid, with two-way radio contact with our police and fire departments and they have cell phone contact as well.”
Prince’s research uncovered two recurring themes that would need to be controlled in order to make the skatepark a positive addition to the community -– trash and graffiti. Though Prince said he didn’t necessarily believe that the skatepark would attract secondary problems, like smoking and bad language, any potential problems would need to be nipped in the bud.
“We’ve had about 2,500 kids participate since we opened the park, and we’ve had no complaints about language or behavior. We’ve never had a decal stuck on anything, nothing spray painted — I’m knocking on my wooden desk right now — but we’ve never had the slightest problem at that park,” says Prince.
“We’ve had a couple of injuries, and our kids simply pushed the button on a walkie-talkie, provided first aid and the ambulance arrived within a few minutes.”
Prince says it’s one of the benefits of living in a small town, as they were able to coordinate supervision with local authorities in a matter of a couple of days.
Prince’s background is in aquatics, and he’s taken lessons learned from his experience and translated it to other recreational programs, going as far as calling the skatepark supervisors skateguards.
“In recreational facility management there are some core priorities you need to have no matter what the facility is. You have to know the type of injuries that are likely to occur, and you need to train for those injuries,” says Prince.
“You need to have emergency action plans in place for anything foreseeable, and a lot of in-service training with the kids. We have training with the skateguards just like we do with lifeguards. We have to train them in customer service and how to open and close a recreation facility.
“Another aspect is facility inspections and risk management. We have to emphasize that every day we have to go through a certain series of events to preclude accidents — to close that window of an opportunity for something bad to happen. No matter what you’re running — a basketball league, swimming pool, soccer program or even square dancers — you have to inspect that recreational area, fill out the proper reports and be prepared for any emergency that could happen.”
Prince plans to take this philosophy across the board with a well-conceived and organized specific plan that will mirror the town’s long-ranging planning for parks and recreation facilities.
Prince is working with the town council on a staffing plan for the next couple of years. He plans to have four full-time professional recreation people, double the maintenance staff and an army of seasonal staff, which will bring the total of full- and part-time staff to around 100.
“We hire school teachers and high-school students to help us with maintenance already. We’re building several miles of trail systems, and you would not believe the amount of time to pick up trash, mow, trim trees and things like that,” says Prince.
With a site picked out and site work beginning, Plainfield’s $20 million recreation center should be the town’s “crown jewel,” as Prince characterizes it.
Plainfield is on an aggressive construction schedule, with completion slated for late 2003 or early 2004. The rec center will include three wood gym floors, an elevated eighth-mile jogging track, a fitness center, aerobics room, full locker rooms, offices, an indoor leisure pool, a media room with a tiered floor, an indoor play area and an outdoor pool.
Prince envisions a café contracted to a coffee company were people could sit and relax. The café will overlook the outdoor pool, play area and the gymnasium so that parents can sit in the café and watch their kids from above.
“We’re taking the advice of people who have recently opened up rec facilities to get the rec building up and running and don’t worry about programs for the first year,” says Prince.
“Our first job is going to be to hire an aquatics assistant director, and an assistant director for recreation. That person’s responsibility is going to be to start a rec program for the town. We’re going to have an exciting opportunity for someone in recreation to build their own rec program from the ground up — build their own manuals and resources and whatnot.”
Plainfield has soccer, baseball and basketball and other sports programs for kids that are put on by local associations and clubs. Prince’s plan is not to infringe on that, but add recreational programs as the needs and resulting demands arise.
“I’m not a big believer in just filling up a brochure and saying, ‘Look at all the programs we offer.’ It’s going to be based on need. It will have two components to it — informal, self-guided recreation like lifting weights and pick-up basketball games — and programming that our citizens ask us for, then hiring the professionals that know how to carry out that programming,” says Prince.
“You have to give citizens what they want. If they want to play basketball, then we’re going to have a league, but then we’re going to hire the people with the experience to know how to put on that basketball league.
“Recreation is contextual. How they view it somewhere else may be different than how that view it in Plainfield. We have to ask the citizens what they want out of the program, provide it to them, under the umbrella of risk management and safety and what we can feasibly do and not do.”
As part of the department’s updating, Prince is in the process of searching for a management software that will not only provide what parks and recreation needs, but the needs of the town.
So the selection committee includes Prince, a council member and an accounting department representative.
“The most important thing for us is going to be the point-of-sale, financial package and the membership management of running the rec center,” says Prince.
“It looks like Web-based registration is where this is heading, and we’ll be looking at that after we get this place opened. We can’t bite off too much, so I doubt that will be part of the original package, but once we get the rec center up and running efficiently, cautiously and methodically, then we’ll look into some of these other options.”
Building a new parks and recreation department is a huge challenge, and one of the important cogs in the process is keeping a close eye on the community’s plan.
“We started this year editing and modifying our comprehensive plan. That laid out all the work we’ve done on the parks. We master planned where the trail and rec center would go and started acquiring the land,” says Prince. “We worked the plan. I think a lot of people have the plan in front of them, and put it on a shelf. In Plainfield, the comprehensive plan is open every day. We know where we’re going, and that’s helped us along quite a bit.”