St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul is working on a long-range analysis of the city's recreation services, surveying residents on what they want and considering how to provide it efficiently. But with that study still in its early stages, a more immediate financial crunch arrived when the city learned last month that it stands to lose more than $40 million in state aid within the next two years.
When the mayor asked city department heads to suggest spending cuts, Director of Parks and Recreation Bob Bierscheid's proposal included eliminating funding for the nine part-time recreation centers. Bierscheid says he knew the idea would upset some people.
"People would love to have that stay in operation and if we had all the resources we wanted, we would, too," Bierscheid said. "But the reality is we don't. So we have to prioritize. How can we serve the most people in the best way?"
Currently, St. Paul's 41 recreation centers fall into three categories. The biggest ones, with the most activities are known as community rec centers. Neighborhood rec centers are smaller. The nine part-time centers are similar but have more limited hours. Bierscheid says closing part-time centers would save up to $400,000 a year.
One of the affected buildings sits in St. Paul's northwestern corner, near Minneapolis and the Mississippi River. It's called the South St. Anthony Rec Center. Director Hal Holtkamp and half a dozen parks employees staff South St. Anthony when they're not working at a full-time neighborhood center about seven blocks away.
South St. Anthony is open weekday afternoons, on Saturdays and a couple of mornings a week. Holtkamp says a booster club of neighborhood adults helps raise money for equipment purchases. He also has a roster of other neighbors ready to help with special events.
"Whenever we need additional help we can always call more of the neighbors to come and assist on, say, the ice cream social, the volleyball tournament we have here, the bookstart program and other programs we have here. It's just a matter of giving people a phone call," Holtkamp said.
The bulk of the volunteer help, though, comes on a day-to-day basis from parents who volunteer to coach kids 14 and younger in sports such as soccer, volleyball, or basketball.
Jim Hovey lives just a few blocks from South St. Anthony Rec Center and coaches a basketball team of boys under age 12. This year they practiced twice a week and competed against teams from other rec centers around the city. Hovey says an organized activity helps keep the kids away from the television and out of trouble.
"If they have a structure, a goal, a competition, something to work toward, something to be proud of -- that gives them a boundary, something to know their role, know what they're supposed to improve at. I think for kids this age it's bad not to have any structure," Hovey said.
If the city closed South St. Anthony, Hovey says some of the kids would probably make their way to Langford Rec Center. But shuttering South St. Anthony would disappoint players such a William Lister, who says he's been a regular at the rec center for five years, or half his life.
You know who some of the biggest boosters of the recreation centers are? Police officers.
"Langford doesn't have as a good floor. You slide on it a lot, so it's really hard for when you're doing scrimmages. And volleyball players -- it has a really low ceiling, so they can't play volleyball in it," Lister said.
Coach Hovey says during basketball season, South St. Anthony's courts are in use continuously from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays -- first with open play, then with boys or girls teams of various age groups. Consolidating neighborhood play at Langford, Hovey says, would mean more players on each team, reducing the playing time of each, and more teams on the remaining courts, making practice time scarce. There's a consensus among people who use and support rec centers that one of their most important functions is giving kids a place to go and things to do during their after-school hours. St. Paul City Council President Dan Bostrom says many people believe rec centers reduce juvenile crime.
"You know who some of the biggest boosters of the recreation centers are? Police officers, who have told me on any number of occasions, 'Dan, it's critically important to have these places for kids with some kind of activity, so they have someplace to go and something to do,'" Bostrom said.
After school activities are important, but another of South St. Anthony's most popular programs is before school. Years before school. On Thursdays the rec center gymnasium is opened in the morning for Tot Time.
Toddlers waddle around, over, and through balls, blocks, toys, each other, and indoor playground equipment. It's a relief for mothers such as Sarah Scheer.
"It's an affordable option," Scheer said. "We're not paying to go someplace and your kids can get a little bit of space. You're in a nice, safe environment and your children can be 20 feet away from you. Which, for a 2-year-old is a nice thing -- for them and the mom, just to have that space and a little bit of independent play." Tot time is such a simple concept that it might seem like the city's not doing much. Parents oversee it themselves, and Holtkamp says even the toys are purchased with donations. But parents are grateful for such a big space for children to romp, especially in winter, and say it provides valuable social time for both toddlers and adults.
Some mothers doubt they could find a comparable cost-free space outside the park system if South St. Anthony closed. Some say they would consider traveling to Tot Time if it were moved to another rec center, although they hope the program would stay small enough for the regulars to get to know each other. St. Paul officials say if the city does excuse itself from the business of funding part-time rec centers, it would not have to mean the demise of those facilities. Officials are talking with neighborhood groups and non-profit agencies that might be equipped to manage the rec centers.
"The Boys and Girls Clubs are the perfect choice to move into rec centers," said Jim Crotty, the president of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Twin Cities.
It's going to be a harder sell to get more money to do this kind of thing.
The agency already operates a couple of rec centers in Minneapolis. Through various programs, the Boys and Girls Clubs serve 10,000 youngsters aged six to 18 in the Twin Cities.
But Crotty says the clubs rely on paid staff, not volunteers, which means running a St. Paul center would be more expensive for them than it is for the city. And money, Crotty says, is tight for non-profits that rely on corporations and foundations for funding.
"Corporate giving, and foundation giving -- but particularly corporate giving -- is tied to corporate profits. And as the economy has taken this downturn, corporate profits are not at the level they used to be. It's going to be a harder sell to get more money to do this kind of thing," Crotty said.
Finding one agency to take over all nine part-time rec centers is not likely. City officials say there's a better chance of finding various local groups to manage the centers in their neighborhoods. Parks director Bierscheid says groups such as the Boy Scouts and the Midway Men's Club have talked about the possibility of managing a center. But no plans are in place.
St. Paul's district councils have close ties to their local rec centers. The St. Anthony Park Community Council has its offices and meeting room in the South St. Anthony Rec Center. Organizer Melissa Mathews says the group is looking for ways to help keep the center open until the city might resume management.
"We're looking at some options, such as trying to manage it or partnering with other non-profit organizations to take that on, and hope that in five years or 10 years, when there's a change of values in the administrative political system, we can re-open these again," Mathews said.
Council President Bostrom says if it does close any rec centers, the city will retain ownership of the properties and will continue to mow the lawns and otherwise maintain the grounds.