Rolling back

BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Richard Rolke on the parks and recreation trend

An interesting trend is developing in local parks and recreation.

For years, officials hiked user fees annually, saying there was a need to keep up with the cost of living (labour, utilities, etc.) or to put money in reserves for future capital works.

But within the last week, politicians and bureaucrats have put on their Wal-Mart happy faces and started rolling back prices.

Case in point, is Vernon council instructing staff to review ice rental rates and if warranted, recommend to the Regional District of North Okanagan to reduce certain categories for 2013/14 to retain market share and allow residents to afford to be active.

In a report to council, Doug Ross, recreation services manager, suggested that ice rental rates have backfired.

“There was a time when Vernon had the monopoly on ice sheets and now there is competition from Armstrong,” he said.

“We see teams driving by us and going to other communities for ice they used to rent from us.”

Certain operating costs are consistent whether arenas are full or empty, so there are other financial issues to consider beyond losing revenue by reducing rates.

Coun. Mary-Jo O’Keefe suggests  lower fees could help turn the situation around.

“We need to do everything we can to retain market share,” she said.

While Vernon debates what to do with its arenas, a similar scenario is unfolding to the east in Lumby.

The White Valley Parks, Recreation and Culture Advisory Committee recently voted to discount early bird passes for the outdoor pool by 50 per cent.

“Existing rates are somewhat excessive and we want to increase usage,” said Rick Fairbairn, committee chairperson.

A family has had to fork out $270 for an early bird season pass while it was $135 for an individual. Obviously the cost was a factor because only three family passes were sold last year.

Just like in Vernon, Lumby officials have discovered that lowering rates to encourage usage is necessary for a financially sustainable facility.

“The cost to operate is the same whether there are three people or 100 people in the pool. You still need lifeguards and the pumps have to run,” said director Randal Ostafichuk.

Of course, the link between rates and users is nothing new.

“The cost for the average person to participate in sports is expensive and we are seeing declining enrolment in some programs,” said Fairbairn when recreation fees were hiked 2.4 per cent in 2012.

“There must be a balance between what we charge and increasing participation.”

And the bottom line is that while a 50-cent hike here and a $1 increase there doesn’t seem like much, there is a cumulative impact.

Many families have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Wages have been frozen or jobs have been lost.

We all know where gas prices have gone, and the cost of groceries, rent and other basics aren’t far behind.

The prospect of sending your kid to the pool for an afternoon of fun or signing them up for minor hockey has become a matter of dollars and cents.

And the increasing cost of recreation comes at the same time society is worried about growing waist lines and the stationary lifestyles digital gadgets have encouraged.

Ultimately, it takes money to run recreation facilities, and while making a profit is unlikely, at least breaking even is ideal. But to do that, a change in thinking is required.

Rolling back those fees may actually force more people to stay closer to home to play, and, more importantly, get them off the couch.


Vernon Morning Star

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