Written by Jason Jones, Director, Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation, with assistance from Katie Bess, Health Associate, NACo.
Identifying Recreational Barriers in Grand Traverse County, Michigan
They say a high tide raises all ships, and although the Grand Traverse Bay doesn’t have significant tides, in the past 24 months, the Grand Traverse (TRᾸ-verse) community has joined together to elevate the quality of life for all those who live in and visit our region.
Grand Traverse County had never had a traditional Parks and Recreation department within its boundaries. Instead, the community's parks and recreation programs and events have come in the form of volunteer efforts, a nonprofit organization, and some for-profit ventures. It was as if the local units (including the county) offered the parks, but you had to bring the recreation with you. Grand Traverse County has some of the finest and most diverse parklands in the state of Michigan, although based on a community needs survey, it typically takes two years for new residents to find the recreational opportunities available through the parks and recreation establishments.
Small nonprofits in the county had done a great job in filling their niche in the community, and were ready to respond at a moment's notice if there was an issue that pertained directly to their sport or activity. The downside being that each was competing for limited resources in the community (e.g. quality coaches, volunteers, grant funding, etc.), as well as limited customers to purchase/support their programs. Some of these organizations were steeped in history, while others were start ups, and still malleable within their policies and procedures. This disparity from organization to organization was not easily understood, and challenging to manage as a parks provider. Needless to say these organizations didn't have the individual capacity to address significant community issues such as obesity, crumbling infrastructure, child safety and the increasing consumer demands for faster, more efficient information exchange.
An Opportunity for Change - Parks & Recreation Network
In 2011, Traverse City Area Public Schools and Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation received a grant to conduct a needs assessment to determine any barriers to healthy recreation in the Grand Traverse community. The results indicated that the residents felt the county did not offer enough recreation programs, and were unsure of where to find information on existing programs. Upon gathering the survey results, the County Parks and Recreation department, in partnership with other community organizations that were providing recreation programs, developed the Parks & Recreation Network (PRN). The Network held its first meeting in December of 2011 and at that time, two goals were identified; 1) to develop a centralized hub website with information on current recreation programs, and 2) to explore the potential for creating a Parks and Recreation Authority, a multi-jurisdictional organization that would offer comprehensive parks and recreation services throughout the county.
Creating a centralized website that served over 20 organizations simultaneously was a challenge, as so was paying for it as many of the smaller organization did not have a technology budget. By pulling together various resources, the PRN developed a hub website, the Grand Traverse Region Parks & Recreation Network. The website contains current news, programs, events, and parks and recreation activities in the Grand Traverse region. During this time, several members of the PRN joined together to develop the Experience 231™ mobile app—a complimentary resource to the website, that provides a “one-stop-shop” for a self-guided outdoor recreation experience (hiking, paddling, biking, etc). The mobile app is now available for iPhones and Android Devices.
Through this exploratory process on the feasibility of a Parks and Recreation Authority, the PRN has learned that creating an authority requires three different groups of advocates; members of the public, parks and recreation professionals, and elected officials.
Over the last two years, the PRN has noticed a significant, positive impact on our community. Though it was not our original intent in creating the Network, the PRN has become a forum for discussing and responding to issues related to obesity and proactive health. For example, The PRN has partnered with its local hospital system to develop a plan to reduce obesity outlined by the Michigan Governor’s office. The county has worked with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to lead a friendly competition between the Cities of Marquette and Kalamazoo (resulting in a $9,000 award to redevelop a park or program keeping people active). The community held the inaugural GT Rec Experience Expo, bringing all of our community’s recreation providers under one roof in an open house forum for our citizens to visit and learn about our collective services. And in 2013, the PRN hosted a booth promoting healthy activities at the 2013 National Cherry Festival, held in Traverse City.
Parks and Recreation systems are our community’s most proactive quality of life engines, and are the very definition of preventative medicine. Assuming healthy citizens are a goal for our counties (and our country), the parks and recreation providers offer the pro-active prescription to a healthy, happy population. Since the creation of the PRN, we have found that more people are visiting our parks, registering for our programs, and contacting our member organizations. We have eliminated the rip current mindset of, “Is this good for my organization?” and instead ask, “Is this good for my community?” Since the implementation of PRN, 23 organizations have come together to raise the tide throughout Grand Traverse County—to the benefit of all our citizens.
The Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation Department is familiar with the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps initiative. The county currently ranks in the 7 out of 83 counties in Michigan. Jason Jones, Director of Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation Department, attended a County Health Rankings & Roadmaps workshop at the National Outdoor Recreation Conference last spring. In February Mr. Jones was awarded the 2013 Commitment to Excellence Award by the Michigan Recreation and Park Association, and was sworn in as President Elect of the organization in September.