Apr. 19—The shutdown of local recreation programs during the pandemic took a bite out of city and town revenues over the past year, in some cases forcing deep budget cuts, layoffs and furloughs.
But municipal officials in Maine are seeing gains as more people are vaccinated and safety guidelines allow for programs to expand and more people to participate.
While dealing with revenue shortfalls, recreation departments across the state got creative to adapt programming to the pandemic, often focusing on online activities or outdoor activities that allowed for social distancing. Recreation directors adapted to safety protocols to provide essential child care and support outdoor activities that weren’t shut down and gave residents a chance to stay active.
In some communities, recreation staffers stepped into new roles offering essential services like food distribution, wellness checks and nonemergency hotlines.
“I think the pandemic showed how essential a rec department is to the community, whether it’s trails and parks or child care or the social aspect of providing safe ways to see people face-to-face,” said Jason Webber, recreation director for Old Orchard Beach.
In Portland, where the facilities and recreation department budget includes revenue from Merrill Auditorium and Ocean Gateway, the impact of the pandemic has been massive, said Ethan Hipple, director of the Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department. Revenue is down $2 million for the current fiscal year and 30 full-time staff positions were eliminated.
The biggest drop in revenue came from rental fees at Merrill Auditorium and Ocean Gateway, but the department also took in less money from summer camps, youth programs and activities for seniors. Revenue from facilities is starting to rebound as events begin at Merrill Auditorium and weddings resume at Ocean Gateway, but the city won’t recover overnight, Hipple said. He expects “modest gains” in revenue in the coming year.
“We think it will be three to five years to get back to normal, if there is a normal anymore,” he said.
The department is now focusing on bringing back its core programs, including activities and trips for seniors that haven’t been held since last spring. But it will likely be August or September before they can resume because the department needs to wait for the new budget year to bring back staff.
Hipple expects the number of children participating in before- and after-school programs and summer camps to continue to increase, which will help bring in revenue. Pre-pandemic, about 750 children were enrolled in the before- and after-school programs, but only 350 could participate in the past year. Summer camps were similarly affected, with only 75 children last summer.
“It looked a lot different than it was in the past. It wasn’t possible to pack kids into a bus to go to a water park for the day, but we could go out for walks in the woods,” Hipple said.
Despite the budget challenge, Hipple sees a bright spot in the popularity of Portland’s outdoor recreation facilities during the pandemic. Trail counters on Back Cove showed use was up, even on bad weather days, and people flocked to trails and parks. Tennis courts and skateparks were busy. And pickleball boomed in popularity to the point that the city painted more lines and added more nets.
“It made us realize the importance of these facilities to the community,” Hipple said.
The pandemic has “severely” impacted the South Portland Recreation Department financially, said Anthony Johnson, the city’s recreation operations manager. Early in the pandemic, the department could not offer many of its typical programs, including sports camps, summer sport leagues and fitness programs. The programs that have been offered since last spring have lower participation limits because of social distancing requirements and hesitancy to participate, he said.
Revenue for the recreation department was down more than $401,000, or 38 percent, for the fiscal year that ended a couple of months after the pandemic started. The biggest hit came from summer camps, where revenue was down 80 percent.
Recreation revenue is down more than $827,000 from the projection of $1.14 million for the current fiscal year. So far this year, revenue from senior programs is down 95 percent and youth program revenue is down 64 percent.
Johnson said six to eight employees were temporarily furloughed last spring and a couple of open positions have not been filled, but the department has not had to lay off any staff.
The city is currently working on the fiscal year 2022 budget that begins on July 1, but Johnson said the department has projected its revenue at a conservative 80 percent of the current year projected revenue of $1.14 million.
“We don’t how all this will play out. We do think it’s going to bounce back quite a bit,” Johnson said.
An unexpected silver lining in the department’s budget was found in golf, according to Johnson. Last season, revenue from the municipal golf course exceeding projections by more than $16,000 as people looked for outdoor activities with built-in social distance. The department also held youth golf clinics through summer and fall.
The city expects the municipal golf course to see similar revenue increases this year. The course generated $13,000 in the first five days it was open last year. This year, it took in more than $15,000 in the first five days.
“We are riding that momentum into the 2021 season,” Johnson said.
Things are also looking up for other rec programs in South Portland, with more people signing up for activities or using facilities after being vaccinated. The department has resumed adult basketball leagues and senior trips are quickly filling up. Participation is increasing in youth sports programs, Johnson said. Last year, South Portland was not able to offer youth soccer and basketball or adult basketball and softball leagues.
The department is also looking forward to offering multiple summer camps to more children this year, Johnson said. Last summer, the department did not have access to school buildings, so it held three camps at community centers for around 80 kids, a drastic decrease from the usual 500 campers across five locations. Johnson expects up to 70 children to attend each of five camps that will be offered.
In Saco, staff members of the parks and recreation department are also expecting more children to participate in summer camps, after-school care and other programs this year.
Ryan Sommer, director of the Saco Parks and Recreation Department, said revenue for the current year is expected to come in at 50 to 60 percent of its normal total of $1 million. The department has cut back on expenses and hired fewer seasonal employees last year, but has avoided layoffs. Sommer said he expects recreation revenue to rebound as state guidelines allow for higher numbers of participants in programs.
Rec programs in Saco had to stop at the beginning of the pandemic, but the staff immediately sat down to figure out creative ways to keep people connected and offer programs that would keep people safe.
“When we sat down in the first couple days of the pandemic the question was: What do we do and how do we make this work? When the building goes quiet it’s quite eerie for us. We enjoy the chaos and the noise (of) the kids,” Sommer said.
Erika Dube, the deputy recreation director in Saco, said the recreation department staff was able to adapt many of its youth programs by reducing numbers, focusing on being outdoors, skipping competitions with other communities and participating in virtual competitions. Staff also helped address food insecurity through meal programs and checked in with community members to make sure they were OK.
Between July 1 and last week, the Saco Parks and Recreation Department served 4,340 meals to seniors, made 600 wellness check-in phone calls, offered 198 activities and saw an increase in visits to outdoor recreation facilities. The department held six camps last summer with a total of 152 campers and offered 342 hours of remote learning support per school over the course of the school year.
“Our team is so happy to be providing program and services to our community. We really had adopted a mentality that what we’re doing is an essential COVID response service, from child care, to access to green space and trail systems and youth sports,” Dube said. “It’s been one of those years where we’ve always loved what we do and know we’re so proud of what we do.”
Webber, the recreation director in Old Orchard Beach, said his department also took on new responsibilities during the pandemic as it adapted its programming and kept all full-time staff members working.
“One of the things I take pride in is how we showed the town of Old Orchard Beach how essential the recreation department was to them,” he said.
The recreation department staffed food drives, picked up medication and groceries for seniors and answered the non-emergency COVID hotline established by the town. They adapted programs to rely heavily on Zoom and being outside. The summer camp was scaled back last year to 25 campers, but was still offered because it is essential for working parents. This year, the rec department is expecting close to 100 campers.
Webber said revenue is down slightly this year, but he expects that to be only “a little shy of normal” in the next year and back on track by the following year as more residents get vaccinated and feel comfortable participating in group activities.
“We’re at a point where we have run safe programs that provided an outlet for our community and every time we open up a new program people are signing up,” he said. “The community has seen what we’ve done and feel it’s safe for their child to come or for seniors to participate. People want to get out and do it in a safe way.”