Privatizing St. Paul Rec Centers


At first glance, Orchard Recreation Center looks like any other rec center in Saint Paul. However, when you approach the front doors you quickly notice the difference. Taped to the door, is a letter from the City of Saint Paul Division of Parks and Recreation that reads:

Dear Resident: As of January 1, 2008, Orchard Recreation Center will be leased to the St. Paul Blackhawks Soccer…Some recreation programs will be running through Orchard but most programming has been move[d] to recreation centers close by such as North Dale. If you have any further questions, please call 651-266-6400. Thank you, Recreation Staff.

Any person greeted by this letter would no doubt wonder…why. Why has Saint Paul decided to turnover one of its rec centers to a separate agency?

In actuality, Saint Paul is transferring management of eight of its recreation centers to community organizations. In an effort to keep the lights on at all of its recreation centers, Saint Paul devised a creative solution—partnerships.

“It’s never been done before,” said Brad Meyer, Public Information Officer for Saint Paul Parks and Recreation Department.

It was no secret a year ago that several of Saint Paul recreation centers were in jeopardy of being permanently padlocked in order to whittle away at the city’s $16.5 million shortfall. However, the concept of partnerships has breathed new life into eight rec center buildings.

Meyer said the idea of partnerships came to fruition after Mayor Chris Coleman’s 2007 budget speech alerting Saint Paul residents to the budget deficit. The mayor announced he was determined to balance the budget without raising taxes or cutting core programs. Instead, his goal was to provide “better services at a better price.” For the Parks and Recreation Department, Meyer said this meant finding a more cost-efficient way to meet the needs of the community.

“We looked at how many rec centers there were and how many people they served,” Meyer said.

Saint Paul has 41 recreation centers scattered throughout the city. Attendance records indicated eight centers—Desnoyer, Dunning, Eastview, Frost Lake, Highwood Hills, Homecroft, Orchard and St. Clair—were under-utilized. Previously, the city’s focus was on the number of rec centers, not on the programs the centers provided. With the current budget crunch, the Recreation Division felt it was time to emphasize quality, not quantity.

Meyer said the city felt these facilities could better serve the community if they were leased to non-profit agencies connected to the community. Interested agencies enter into a partnership with the city in which they agree to staff the center as well as pay all operating expenses such as utilities. They will also handle any issues or complaints that may arise during the term of their lease. Saint Paul will retain ownership of the buildings and will be responsible for any large scale improvements needed.

“The biggest reason we looked at partnerships was efficiency,” Meyer said. In an e-mail interview, he explained: “So certain programs will be either moved or adjusted to account for the facility now being used for the partner’s needs. … Each partner will conduct business on their own accord, and if necessary will make some parts of the building available for Parks & Recreation specific programming (which we would bring staff in to run).”

Programs at the leased rec centers will reflect the services provided by the organizations managing them. According to parks employee Ron Hauth, Service Area Coordinator for the North Corridor, the Blackhawks signed a five-year lease agreement to manage Orchard. This winter the Blackhawks provided indoor soccer league in Orchard’s gymnasium.

People interested in participating in typical rec center activities, such as organized sports, can use any of the remaining 33 rec centers offering the desired program. Hauth said that happened recently at Orchard. Registration numbers were too low to sustain basketball and volleyball leagues, so the registrants joined leagues at other nearby centers.

“Those who were interested in playing volleyball were absorbed in the Northwest Como and North Dale rec centers.” Hauth said.

Similar partnership agreements have been reached with Merrick Community Services on Saint Paul’s east side to lease Eastview Recreation Center and for West 7th Community Center to oversee the St. Clair Recreation Center. Meyer stated the city is still seeking a partner for the seasonal rec center at Desnoyer Park.

Frost Lake, Highwood Hills and Homecroft rec centers are actually located inside Saint Paul public schools buildings. Their respective schools will assume the operation of these centers.

Dunning Recreation Center is located only a few blocks from the newly remodeled Jimmy Lee Recreation Center and Oxford Aquatic Pool, scheduled to reopen in May. Meyer expects most Dunning users will choose Jimmy Lee’s new facility. However, the city would still like to see Dunning remain open. According to Meyer, the Lexington-Hamline Community Council had initially agreed to manage Dunning, but later declined because the operating costs were too high.

“Operating a rec center is expensive,” Meyer said. “We are looking at the possibility of multiple partners for Dunning.”

Meyer believes this creative management technique will benefit both the city and the community overall. He sees these changes as not only providing better services at a better price but also helping Saint Paul achieve its primary goal…”to make Saint Paul the most livable city in America.”

Deb Pleasants worked as a probation officer for 15 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom. In addition to caring for her son, she is a freelance writer and citizen journalist. She resides in St. Paul with her family.