Surveyed about public fun in Akron, 1,500 people made it painfully clear that many have no clue what the city’s recreation bureau does.

When asked what they want, the public said more programming (for teens, for the elderly, for families, for anyone and everyone), safer and cleaner spaces (including bathrooms at pools and better lighting), fewer baseball fields (which are underused), public Wi-Fi at parks and — across the board — aquatic activities found in just about every major city outside Akron.

Staff expected residents to prioritize swimming, and rightly so. Even as the mayor and his planning staff considered closing the city’s costly outdoor pools, recreation staff saw children and families flock to Perkins Woods and Reservoir Park last summer after private citizens and artists partnered with the city on minor improvements.

“It’s amazing what a little paint can do,” said Doug Sutton, who supervises the Balch Street Community Center, which has the city’s only indoor swimming pool after another closed when the mayor sold CitiCenter last year.

“And giving out hot dogs and pretzels,” added Jeff Rowland, a nearly 45-year recreation employee who runs the Ed Davis Community Center in West Akron.

And so Mayor Dan Horrigan, who asked Sutton, Rowland and seven other recreation staff members for their advice, is launching a five-year plan to reinvest in the city’s outdoor swimming pools. In the next few weeks, he'll ask City Council to approve two splash parks in the 2019 capital budget.

 

'Make it better'

There’s no plan at this time to build more pools, Horrigan said last week in an interview about the results of the survey and how he’ll use the voices of the public and staff on the ground to guide programming at the city’s 11 community centers, three swimming pools and numerous parks.

“We wanted to be as self-reflective in the services that we offer, as much as possible, and kind of point out that if we’re missing the boat, let’s try to make it better,” Horrigan said of convening the nine-member recreation committee and hiring Rick Adler and Associates for close to $50,000 to gauge residents' wants, needs and criticisms.

Recreation Bureau Manager Brittany Schmoekel, who pitched the idea of forming the committee, took the mayor’s request for help as an opportunity to reset her agency’s mission statement, which now expressly supports diversity and community connecting. The shift in thought could mean more emphasize on recreation, even if funding remains tight.

“When I talk with recreation departments [in other cities] they were astounded that Mayor Horrigan said that recreation is an essential service,” Schmoekel said.

 

Splash parks coming

A map at northeastohiofamilyfun.com shows spraygrounds and dipping pools in Hudson, Green and Barberton. There are seven locations in Cuyahoga Falls, including an interactive water fountain that’s almost always teeming with kids and families on sunny days beside the downtown amphitheater off state Route 8.

But there’s no splash park in Akron, where citizens like restaurant owner Ed Davidian have been pushing municipal leaders for more than a decade to invest in low-cost water recreation.

With outdoor swimming pools now serving East and West Akron, Horrigan and Schmoekel are thinking about building splash parks this year to serve residents in the city's north and south sides, in areas with lots of youths like Joy Park.

 

Other upgrades

Reminded of how little the public knows about it, the recreation bureau is planning an aggressive promotional campaign on social media.

A new website tool called RecDesk should allow residents access to an interactive calendar to view availability before renting community centers. Larger rooms can be booked for $50 an hour and smaller rooms for $35 an hour. The bureau recently did away with requiring liability insurance for groups planning smaller events, like birthday parties, which found the insurance to be cost prohibitive.

Jeff Mourton, who coordinates the community centers, said supervisors at each community gathering place have been tasked with adding one free, public event this year.

And staff members continue to search out people who will help champion the city’s facilities, from small groups like local businesses and church leaders to well-funded philanthropists. Sutton mentioned the LeBron James Family Foundation, which renovated the gym at Balch Street Community Center over six weeks at the end of 2018. Akron Public Schools donated a scoreboard and the foundation sanded the wood court, applied three coats of varnish, installed new glass backboards and painted the whole space black and white like James' signature I Promise School. The makeover culminated with Gloria James, LeBron’s mother, giving Christmas gifts to 240 local kids.

The new look is appreciated by members of the community who fill the gym daily with the sounds of squeaking sneakers. "More than anything, we want the public to know we heard you, and thank you," Sutton said.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.