Triple Play

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.

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