Summer will look and feel different in Tacoma’s parks this year due to the profound financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Metro Parks Tacoma currently projects a $13 million revenue shortfall for the independent park district, which stewards 70 parks and recreation properties. While most people are under the impression that park systems are primarily paid for by tax dollars, 47 percent of Metro Parks’ annual operating funds are derived from other sources such as memberships, registration and admission fees, donations, and corporate partnerships.
As a result, the district was faced with the difficult decision to lay off or furlough nearly 80 percent of its workforce. Since staffing makes up the bulk of operating costs, most of the furloughs must remain in effect through at least the end of June in order to recoup some of the savings needed to offset the losses. As a special purpose district, Metro Parks has not qualified for any federal relief funding.
With a few exceptions, most Metro Parks operations are focused for now on essential services, such as ensuring the public’s safety in parks by addressing basic maintenance needs. Parks remain open for short-term use and enjoyment. However, closures of most parking lots and restrooms will remain in effect beyond the state’s allowable dates for reopening as the district enters summer season with approximately 20 percent of normal staffing levels. And, even as warm weather increases irrigation will be extremely limited this summer as a necessary cost-reduction.
“This has been really hard on all of our staff,” said Park Board President Tim Reid. “They pride themselves on creating high quality experiences that provide our community with escapes from everyday life. This is a rough time for everyone and our team is working hard to meet community needs under the most extreme circumstances we have faced in the district’s 113-year history.”
Despite many challenges limiting operations, staff are innovating new ways to safely serve the public and reactivate allowable services. Northwest Trek Wildlife Park’s new Wild Drive experience, which enables guests to remain in their own vehicles while enjoying a guided group tour through the park’s Free-Roaming Area, has earned raved reviews.
The district was also able to re-open boat lift and launch services at Point Defiance Marina in time for the opening of ling cod season and Meadow Park Golf Course re-opened on a limited basis with advance booking of tee-times beginning May 22.
“All of our operations have to not only adapt to ensure we are fiscally responsible and meeting public need as services are restarted, but also that we are ensuring the safety of our visitors and staff under new operating models,” said Metro Parks Executive Director Shon Sylvia.
The district is conducting a community survey to help guide operating decisions. Community input will be balanced along with these seven criteria to determine summer operations, as well as setting the framework for the remainder of 2020:
- Regulatory requirements
- Physical and emotional health of the community
- Equity and geographic balance
- Innovation in meeting community need
- Cost recovery/revenue opportunity/maintenance and operations offset
- Staffing and budgetary constraints
- Contractual and partnership considerations
Metro Parks operates a vast network of destinations and experiences, including Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, Meadow Park Golf Course, Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, Tacoma Nature Center and the W.W. Seymour Conservatory, plus community centers, pools, spraygrounds, neighborhood parks, hundreds of recreation programs, and more.
Park District leaders and staff are assessing the various phases of the state’s re-opening plan as they comprehensively evaluate the robust system to determine what can be offered this summer. An update of summer operations is expected by mid-June.
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