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Public rec evolves to meet resident needs

Public recreation departments are changing. That’s because the public’s expectations are changing, sometimes without residents expressly saying so.

Take safety, for example. For the wellbeing of children and seniors, the Town of Mount Pleasant’s recreation department requires a national background check for every volunteer and individual who rents a facility for more than one day.

Town of Mount Pleasant adult swim program
Town of Mount Pleasant adult swim program

"This is probably the most important trend," said Ken Ayoub, town recreation director, during his presentation at the Annual Meeting of the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

The town also has a feeding program, an initiative that helps provide a nutricious breakfast, lunch or both to the children who visit the community centers, especially during the summer or on Saturdays when school is not in session.

Ayoub pointed to another trend of parks and recreation departments increasingly hiring people with broader educational backgrounds. Over the years, he said, his department has benefited from several management employees who hold degrees in business management.

"Such training will become more critical, as agencies cope with expanding populations, aging infrastructure and perceived over-taxation, while maintaining a delicate balance with affordability and program/facility growth," Ayoub said.

Pressure is increasing on departments to break even financially, which means charging a user fee to support activities instead of trying to raise taxes, he said.

Last year Mount Pleasant voters narrowly rejected a property tax increase to support recreation and parks, in part, because the increase had no sunset provision.

"The new generation coming through in recreation has to be able to deal on this level," said Ayoub. "They have to know how to talk to the public when it comes to, ‘Give me more money.’"

While the skills needed to work in parks and rec are getting an update, the activities cities offer residents, too, are reflecting changing times. Off-beat team sports are figuring into Mount Pleasant’s mix, including ultimate Frisbee, Frisbee golf and Quidditch, a game from the Harry Potter books.

Quiddich Tournament
Quidditch Tournament. Photo/Wendy Waddle, City of Rock Hill

That doesn’t mean the Town of Mount Pleasant caters to all emerging fads. The town isn’t experiencing enough of a surge in pickleball interest to warrant directing additional resources to it. Another wait-and-see phenomenon ­is the new "Pokemon Go" craze, a game described on its website as a "location-based augmented reality mobile game."

"We’re not going to design things based on ‘Pokemon Go’ right now," Ayoub said, adding that staff might consider it again if it is still going strong in two or three years.

Even as team sports come and go, a demographic trend that does show signs of intensifying is the prolonged number of years residents are looking for something active to do.

"The two generations behind us are going to be in much better shape than we are," said Ayoub. "They’re going to continue on much longer than we are. We’ve already seen an increase in adult participation."

One operational trend that seems apparent across the town’s initiatives is the idea of efficiency, squeezing as much benefit out of facilities as possible. Some of the changes Ayoub described include concrete slabs that are big enough to use for pickleball, basketball and tennis; allowing nonprofits to use public facilities; using public school facilities after 5 p.m.; and a "mobile rec" concept, in which a town staff member loads up a van with recreation gear and drives it into underserved pockets of the community.

"No one in recreation likes to see a facility not being used," Ayoub said.