In its 2016 Community Center Strategic Plan, Seattle Parks and Recreation (SPR) identified the Green Lake community center and pool to pilot a partnership aimed at expanding operating hours and addressing capital needs. This sort of model is common, with many examples in our state, across the country and indeed around the world. Communities have embraced the benefits partners (whether nonprofit or for-profit) can bring, such as expertise and economies of scale.
Opinions about the proposal among residents in the neighborhoods the community center serves range from enthusiastic, or cautiously interested, to a small but vocal group that is strongly opposed. Jésus Aguirre, the SPR Superintendent, held the first community discussion recently to provide more information about the proposal, the fiscal constraints SPR is working under, the capital needs of Green Lake, and to outline how the city plans to go about exploring this proposal.
Many residents of Green Lake, myself included, feel that up until now there’s been a lack of transparency about the proposed partnership, including around SPR’s recommendation that the community center building needs replacing rather than refurbishing. Aguirre addressed some of our concerns, with a commitment to making public the assessment concluding replacement is necessary, and confirming that in any partnership SPR will maintain control over things like access and user charges.
Thousands of local governments of all political stripes use partnerships to run their pools and community centers, and in many cases supply capital for the facilities. Parks and recreation departments often find that for the money they’re already spending on operations, nonprofits can deliver taxpayers more, such as longer hours, additional classes or new programs altogether.
Close to home, the City of Edmonds has partnered since 2014 with Shoreline’s YMCA to staff its Yost Pool. In 2015, the city of Maplewood, MN, partnered with the YMCA to manage its pools, and last year to operate its community center. When the agreement was struck, Maplewood Park and Recreation Director DuWayne Konewko said, “[W]e have to find better ways to leverage our resources. If that involves collaborating with nonprofits, that’s what we should be doing … We want to ensure the viability of the community center. That’s the goal at the end of the day.”
Based on his presentation, SPR’s superintendent appears to be taking the same pragmatic approach. Aguirre outlined how just to maintain the centers the city operates and meet today’s demand we need tens of millions of dollars, but only have a few million to spend each year. He also noted that given the city’s skyrocketing population growth, we need to be planning for future demand, meaning our already massive revenue shortfall is even worse than it appears.
Members of the community who spoke out against the proposal didn’t offer any new ideas. In fact, they simultaneously felt that the city betrayed them after they voted for the recent Parks Levy, which hasn’t funded the necessary improvements at Green Lake, and argued another levy, or a bond measure was the solution. For self-professed progressives, they certainly seem to be adopting a conservative approach to solving this problem, by supporting the failed policies of the past.
Another argument offered in support of the status quo was that the pool and center ought to be staffed by city employees. So long as we’re receiving the services we want, it’s hard to understand why we should care who answers the community center phone or puts away the ping pong tables. Indeed, every morning we happily entrust the lives of our children to school bus drivers not employed by the city.
When using a partnership to assist with the capital required to replace the SPR’s aging centers, another benefit is in sharing the risk. The city (and governments in general) are notorious for budget blowouts–in March we learned that the cost of building light rail on I90 has shot up $225 million more than had been estimated. It’s easy to imagine a levy passing, the community center being torn down and the city discovering that their initial estimate was millions of dollars short of what’s required. We’d have a hole in the ground for months or years while more funds are found to complete the work.
Aguirre ought to be commended for looking for new ways to solve the issues SPR faces. What’s being proposed, if done right, works and is popular with residents in countless municipalities around the world. Those who are opposed are welcome to propose other ways of addressing the problem Green Lake and other city community centers are facing, but more of the same isn’t progress.