If Natchitoches (pronounced Nackitish), La., was a private company, its stock would be climbing. It has become a hub for special events and tournament teams, while providing more and better recreational programs and facilities for its citizens.
Its success, like anything else, is tied to a number of factors. For parks and recreation, the turning point came when the city decided to make recreation a full-time endeavor. The transition was not easy (nothing worthwhile is), nor did it magically happen.
In 2001, things began to change. The city recognized the need to upgrade its parks and recreation programs for its citizens and to help promote the city as a center of tourism.
Frank Griffin, who was first hired on as assistant director in February of 2001 recalls, “Our parks and pools, which were up to 50 years old, had not been significantly upgraded since they were first put in. We also didn’t have a maintenance department, so when public works had time to get to the parks they were mowed.”
Since that time, the department has added two full-time maintenance employees, an assistant director based at the city’s new recreation center (which also has its own full-time maintenance person), a full-time administrative assistant, a part-time secretary and part-time athletic program coordinator, both of whom attend Northwestern State University in Natchitoches.
Capitalizing on Creativity
“It used to take two weeks to cut everything; now it takes three days. In the book Good to Great [subtitled Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't, by Jim Collins] it says you don’t need to know where you’re going; you just need to put the right people on the bus. From there, you can figure out where to drive it,” explains Griffin.
“We had some of the wrong people on the bus, so we got the right people on board, then figured out where we were going to go with it. It drives itself now.”
It’s a well-known axiom that staff makes or breaks the department or organization, but Griffin goes further with the axiom by connecting dollars and cents to hiring the right staff.
“We choose highly motivated people, and we pay them well, but they get more work done than four or five guys typically would, so I’m really saving money,” says Griffin.
“When all I have to say is, ‘We need to get this done,’ it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or sleeting, they’re going to get it done. It took us a long time to find that second person, and once we did we really took off.”
The other challenge was budgetary, particularly since parks and recreation doesn’t have its own budget, per se. It relies on the city’s general fund and does not have its own income tied to any certain tax, bond or other means of steady income.
The need and motivation was clear, so Griffin and others at the city put their heads together to find alternative revenue streams. One way was for recreation to find grants and bonds for other departments for specific projects or items — like new vehicles for public works. The money found for that specific need through the alternative funding source was loosened up from the benefiting department’s general fund for recreation.
Further, Griffin has been very active in seeking grants and corporate funding by attending conferences, talking to other parks and recreation professionals to find out how they financed their projects, and state and local representatives — “anywhere we can get information from,” says Griffin.
“If we find an application, we send it in. We received money from Union-Pacific railroad for one of our parks to purchase playground equipment, for instance. We were ready to do it $2,500 at a time if we had to, and we’ve gotten a long way in a very short time,” says Griffin.
That “long way in a very short time” has been just that, as the city has replaced all of its playgrounds with new equipment, adding two in the process.
The importance of this hit home when a woman was hurt at one of the playgrounds. Fortunately, there wasn’t a lawsuit connected to it, but it pointed to the need to come up to today’s standards on equipment and surfacing.
“We pulled out every piece of playground equipment we had. We didn’t have any safety surfacing or any equipment within ten years of age, and those more recent additions were only the animal hoppers. If something needed repair we had to bring it to the machine shop and have them make something up to make it work, since many of the old parts were no longer available,” says Griffin.
“We eliminated swings and went with modular structures, since they have low maintenance and few repairs and come with long warranties. Everything we do we look at whether or not our guys will be able to take this on and do the same quality job we do with everything else and not neglect anything we have. If not, what are our options? Because we know bringing additional staff on is not an option.”
This translates to everything else, like walking trails, which are designed with drainage, maintenance and their future care in mind.
Additionally, one feature can tie into another through a grant application, such as Natchitoches did with the Rapides Foundation (www.rapidesfoundation.org).
The foundation provided a grant for a walking trail and a playground renovation. The foundation has since developed a specific grant for this application based on its experience with Natchitoches.
In all, nine playgrounds were replaced and two new ones added.
Both city pools are being renovated, with new filtration systems, new roofs on the structures, new decking and fencing. One pool is being converted into a sprayground. The second pool will be renovated, while the adjacent baby pool will be turned into a sprayground as well.
“We won’t need lifeguards for the sprayground, just someone certified in First Aid and CPR as a site manager. That should save us about $20,000 a year in staffing and chemicals. In five years it will pay for itself,” says Griffin.
“We know the concept we want, just not the exact equipment right now — but it will be one of the ten companies on the bid list. The citizens will like it, and it has less liability and overhead. You can’t continuously have an increase in your tax base, so I look for things that are economical in the long run that our citizens would like. They like a place for their kids to go and play in the water and not worry about them. Our baby pools are not functional. When we asked them whether they wanted a spray ground or a renovated baby pool, we never got baby pools as an answer.”
Other recent additions include new CXT restrooms for a park and a bevy of maintenance equipment, like mowers, trucks, trailers, front-end loaders, four-wheelers and other utility vehicles.
“In the past three years we’ve probably put in the neighborhood of $500,000 into our park system, which is probably about as much as what’s been spent in the last 30 years,” says Griffin.
Besides creative financing and aggressive grant searches, Natchitoches has ramped up its community sports leagues and special event/tournament promotions.
Griffin reports that numbers have doubled each year in every sport. For example, youth flag football went from 60 to 125 to 250 participants in the first three years, with similar growth numbers in adult leagues.
“We get 30-40 of those political-style signs printed up every year for basketball, football, softball and any event we’re doing that’s coming up. We have them posted at all the key intersections and at the businesses that support us. We probably get more success out of that than we do through other advertising venues,” explains Griffin.
“We send out about 8,000 flyers to the schools for each youth sport and use a different color form for each school we send them out to, so we know that when we’re not getting a particular color form back to put signs up in that area. You’re depending on someone else to do the work for you when you send the forms, and this way the parents can see it themselves if the forms aren’t being passed out in their children’s school.”
Perhaps Natchitoches’ greatest success has been in its ability to attract special events and tournaments to town, as well as hosting its own events. Griffin had been, and is involved with traveling tournaments, so he was able to bring a number of them to town, which helped jump-start the tournament business.
“The biggest thing I would suggest for a city trying to recruit events is being committed to providing them with everything they need to make the event happen and to make it a pleasant experience. The small expenses we incur in a weekend will be offset tenfold by the number of people staying in town. We’ll do anything we can — if there’s bad weather, or if they need help with marketing or finding umpires and scorekeepers, we put ourselves at their beck and call. Once we do that once, then next year it takes a little less work and so on each year. The event becomes an event, and people are looking for it,” explains Griffin.
“We’ve promoted the rental of our parks, we’ve lowered our fees for tournaments and really pushed the tournaments. We used to have two tournaments per year, and now we have about 25 tournaments per year — baseball, softball, fast-pitch, flag football and basketball. We have people from three hours away renting our facilities for tournaments.”
These tournaments — including three fishing tournaments along the Red River — have had an “unbelievable economic impact,” according to Griffin. He recommends attending conferences and trade shows geared toward special event and convention planners.
Once a special event or tournament has been procured it creates a domino effect of sorts, particularly if, as Griffin explained, you put yourself at the organizer’s beck and call.
It also helps that the city has a long and rich history. Natchitoches has the distinction of being the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, being founded in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. The city is as it was then, a vibrant outpost, utilizing the Red River as a key point of commerce.