The suspension of local recovery programs during the pandemic has hurt city and town revenues over the past year, resulting in significant budget cuts, layoffs and vacations in some cases.
But Maine community officials are seeing gains as more people are vaccinated and safety guidelines allow programs to expand and more people to participate.
While addressing revenue shortfalls, leisure departments across the state got creative to adapt programming to the pandemic, often focusing on online or outdoor activities that enabled social distancing. Recreation directors adapted to safety protocols to ensure necessary childcare and support outdoor activities that have not been closed and allowed residents to remain active.
In some communities, recreational workers have taken on new roles that provide essential services such as food distribution, wellness checks and emergency hotlines.
“I think the pandemic has shown the importance of having a recreational department for the community, whether it is hiking trails and parks or childcare or the social aspect of providing safe ways to see people face to face,” said Jason Webber, Leisure Director at Old Orchard Beach.
In Portland, where the facilities and recreation division budget includes revenue from the Merrill Auditorium and Ocean Gateway, the impact of the pandemic has been massive, said Ethan Hipple, director of the parks, recreation and facilities division. Revenue declined $ 2 million in the current fiscal year and 30 full-time positions were cut.
The biggest drop in sales was due to rental fees at the Merrill Auditorium and Ocean Gateway, but the department also raised less money from summer camps, youth programs, and senior activities. Facility revenue is starting to recover as events begin at the Merrill Auditorium and weddings resume at Ocean Gateway, but the city won’t recover overnight, Hipple said. He expects “modest sales growth” for the coming year.
“We believe it will be three to five years before we are back to normal when it is no longer normal,” he said.
The department is now focused on bringing back its core programs, including senior citizen activities and travel that haven’t happened since last spring. But it will likely be August or September before they can resume as the department will have to wait for the new fiscal year to bring staff back.
Hipple believes the number of children participating in pre-school, post-school programs and summer camps will continue to grow, leading to higher income. Before the pandemic, around 750 children participated in the pre- and after-school programs, but only 350 children were able to participate last year. The summer camps with only 75 children were similarly affected last summer.
“It looked very different from the past. It wasn’t possible to put kids on a bus to go to a water park for the day, but we could walk in the woods, ”said Hipple.
Despite the budget challenge, Hipple sees a ray of hope in the popularity of outdoor recreational facilities in Portland during the pandemic. The trail counters in Back Cove showed that use was no longer possible even on days with bad weather and people flocked to trails and parks. Tennis courts and skate parks were full. And pickleball grew in popularity until the city painted more lines and added more nets.
“It made us understand the importance of these facilities to the community,” said Hipple.
The pandemic has “hit the South Portland Recreation Department hard financially,” said Anthony Johnson, the city’s recreational manager. At the beginning of the pandemic, the department was unable to offer many of its typical programs, including sports camps, summer sports leagues, and fitness programs. The programs that have been on offer since last spring have lower entry restrictions due to social distancing requirements and reluctance to attend, he said.
Leisure revenue declined more than $ 401,000, or 38 percent, for the fiscal year that ended several months after the pandemic began. The greatest success came from summer camps, where revenues fell by 80 percent.
Recover sales are down more than $ 827,000 from a forecast of $ 1.14 million for the current fiscal year. So far this year, senior program income has decreased 95 percent and youth program income has decreased 64 percent.
According to Johnson, six to eight employees were on temporary leave last spring and some vacancies were not filled, but the department did not have to lay off any employees.
The city is currently working on the budget for fiscal year 2022, which begins July 1. However, Johnson said the department had forecast its revenue at a conservative 80 percent of its projected revenue of $ 1.14 million for the current year.
“We don’t know how all of this will develop. We think it’s going to bounce back quite a bit, ”said Johnson.
An unexpected silver lining was found in the department’s budget in golf, according to Johnson. Last season, city golf course revenue surpassed projections by more than $ 16,000 as people sought outdoor activities with built in social distance. The department also held youth golf clinics in the summer and fall.
The city expects similar sales increases for the municipal golf course this year. The course grossed $ 13,000 in the first five days it was open last year. This year it grossed more than $ 15,000 in the first five days.
“We’re driving that momentum into the 2021 season,” said Johnson.
It also looks like other Rec programs in South Portland, with more people signing up for activities or using facilities after vaccination. The division has resumed the adult basketball leagues and senior trips are filling up quickly. Participation in youth sports programs is increasing, Johnson said. Last year, South Portland was unable to host 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 had no access to school buildings and held three camps in community centers for around 80 children. This is a drastic decrease from the usual 500 campers in five locations. Johnson expects up to 70 children to attend each of the five camps on offer.
In Saco, park and recreation department employees also expect more children to attend summer camps, after-school care and other programs this year.
Ryan Sommer, director of the parks and recreation division at Saco, said sales for the current year are expected to be 50 to 60 percent of their normal total of $ 1 million. The department cut spending and hired fewer seasonal workers over the past year, but avoided layoffs. Sommer said he expects recovery revenues to rebound as state guidelines allow higher numbers of program participants.
Saco Rec programs had to be shut down at the start of the pandemic, but staff immediately sat down to find creative ways to keep people connected and offer programs that would keep people safe.
“When we sat down in the first days of the pandemic, the question was: what do we do and how do we do it? When the building gets quiet it’s pretty scary to us. We enjoy the chaos and the noise of the children, ”said Sommer.
Erika Dube, the Assistant Recreational Director in Saco, said the Recreation Department staff were able to customize many of their youth programs by cutting down on numbers, focusing on being outdoors, skipping competitions with other communities, and participating in virtual ones Participate in competitions. Staff also helped tackle food insecurity through meal programs and checked in with community members to make sure they were okay.
Between July 1 and last week, the Saco Parks and Recreation Department served 4,340 meals to seniors, made 600 spa check-in calls, offered 198 activities, and saw an increase in visits to outdoor recreational facilities. The department held six camps last summer with a total of 152 campers and offered 342 hours of distance learning per school over the course of the school year.
“Our team is very excited to offer programs and services to our community. We really believed that what we do is an essential COVID response service, from childcare to access to green spaces and trail networks to youth sports, ”said Dube. “It was one of those years where we have always loved what we do and know we are so proud of what we do.”
Webber, the leisure director at Old Orchard Beach, said his department also took on new roles during the pandemic as it adjusted its programming and kept all full-time employees working.
“One of the things I’m proud of is how we showed the City of Old Orchard Beach how important the Recreation Department is to them,” he said.
The leisure department manned food rides, picked up medicines and groceries for seniors, and answered the COVID hotline set up by the city for emergencies. They customized programs to rely heavily on Zoom and be outside. The summer camp was reduced to 25 campers last year but was still offered as it is essential for working parents. This year the Rec department expects almost 100 campers.
Webber said revenue has declined slightly this year, but he expects these to be just “a little shy” next year and back on track the following year as more residents get vaccinated and feel good Participate in group activities.
“We’re at the point where we’ve started safe programs that give our community a chance, and every time we open a new program people sign up,” he said. “The community has seen what we have done and feels confident that their child will come or that seniors will be able to attend. People want out and do it safely. “
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