Recreation Hits The Airwaves

How can municipalities fund public projects without going to taxpayers for more money? One city is taking to the airwaves.

In one year, the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of Jefferson, Ga., has achieved unparalleled growth in its programs and services to the community. A small department that once offered only basic programs has become one that provides services on a par with some of the largest departments in the state. It has also introduced several groundbreaking programs that can’t be found in any other department statewide. One program addressed one of the most-discussed issues in parks and recreation departments across the country–how to deal with limited resources to cover the ever-expanding needs of the community.

The solution to this challenge surfaced in an innovative approach to funding. In August 2007, Jefferson Recreation began broadcasting online and over the airwaves with its own radio station–Radio Jefferson, 1620 AM.

Creative Thinking

Director Ben Dillard, who developed a plan for creating the station, states, “There is no local radio station, and with modern technology, start-up costs are minimal.” “So we felt that we could dive into this venture to provide a public service, and raise money at the same time.” In order to fund the project, Dillard approached the city council with a business model patterned after a similar station in Atlanta–Radio Sandy Springs. David Moxley, owner of Radio Sandy Springs, agreed to work as a consultant to Jefferson, and the project was underway.

Paying The Way

The start-up costs–approximately $125,000–were taken from Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax revenue, a Georgia tax placed on consumer goods that is levied by a county commission and voted on by residents in a referendum. Dillard estimates the station can generate up to $250,000 in annual revenue from ad sales versus $100,000 in operating costs. Dillard’s key to low costs and promising sales are based on the local climate. “We have access to cheap skilled labor from the University of Georgia, and our local community is rabid about the local high school and area happenings.”

Local Flavor

The format of the station is primarily talk radio, with all shows revolving around local topics or hosted by local personalities. “We don’t have nationally recognized show hosts,” Dillard states, “but our local doctors and lawyers are just as opinionated as anyone else.” The programming includes a daily drive-time show, various talk shows throughout the day, city council and local sports at night, with reruns and church broadcasts on weekends.

The Dividends

In 2005, Jefferson offered only three programs in youth sports. Today, the Jefferson Youth Athletic programs include football, cheerleading, flag football, basketball, soccer, fall ball, swimming, track, tennis, T-ball, baseball and softball. Other programs include fishing and gun safety classes, camping trips, first aid, and CPR. Exercise programs include jazzercise, yoga, a woman’s walking club and baton twirling, as well as innovative programs for teenagers, the disadvantaged and the disabled. In addition, Jefferson is the one of few recreation departments participating in Axia Healthcare’s Silver Sneaker’s Program, offering exercise and social opportunities to senior citizens.

The Bottom Line

In 2005, Jefferson’s parks and recreation budget was $300,000. The 2008 budget has swelled to $1.2 million. That’s quite a jump for a small town of 6,000 people in just two years, but Dillard explains why. “It goes to show you what can be accomplished when everyone in the community works together for common goals. Jefferson is the greatest city in the world!”

It may be a great city, but funding such rapid growth for a small community can become a burden. And some people question whether a public entity should venture into private enterprise. Dillard explains, “We do not have enough park land to accommodate the people we have participating (in programs), so we have a tremendous need for new facilities. The problem with government is that it doesn’t look to private business models enough. We owe it to the taxpayers to try to carry our own load, and the radio station has been a big part of helping us accomplish this.”

For more information on Radio Jefferson, contact Ben Dillard at bdillard@jeffersonrec.com.

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