BROOKINGS – After the limited summer season of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Brookings Parks and Recreation looks to a much better summer season in 2021.
But one of its biggest draws – the Hillcrest Aquatic Center, which was totally closed in 2020 – has the word “tentatively” in its schedule as it faces a major challenge: staffing.
“Now we’re on the other side of (the pandemic),” Parks, Recreation and Forestry Director Dusty Rodiek said. “We’re struggling to find staff: for the pool, for everything. We simply can’t find people.”
There are some jobs that can be had with little or no experience, and those hired can adapt and learn their needed skills quickly. Other more demanding jobs have stricter qualifications, such as lifeguards for the Hillcrest Aquatic Center.
“Lifeguards have to be certified,” Recreation Manager Stacy Claussen explained. If she can’t get enough of them, the HAC’s schedule could be “tentatively” impacted.
“High school kids, typically if you’re a lifeguard, you’re athletic,” she explained. “They’re involved in softball, baseball and everything else for the summer, swim teams. All of these things that are weekends and nights, typically that keeps them busy. That’s always been a struggle.”
As for college students, Claussen said some who weren’t hired as lifeguards for the 2020 season haven’t come back. They found jobs that may be year-round positions.
‘We will open it’
According to Claussen, a best-case scenario, i.e. the Aquatic Center fully open, would demand about 40 to 50 lifeguards.
Rodiek explained that “40 sounds like a big number, but a lot of them can only commit to about 15 or 20 hours a week. So you need that many to fill all the slots.”
Claussen added that in past years typically more than 30 lifeguards returned from the previous year’s number. This year she has had 11 returnees to date. And pay can be an issue.
“Depending on who you are, I mean if you’re 15 coming in, it’s exciting to get paid what we’re offering,” she explained. “But it’s a challenge, because we’re struggling to compete against a lot of different areas for pay.”
But the show must go on.
“We will open it,” Claussen said. “Having enough staff to open it fully, every day, is going to be a huge challenge.”
Rodiek explained that, depending on staff availability, there may be some areas of the pool opened while others are closed – done by shifts on a schedule. As an example, he added, “For this shift, the lap pool and another pool might be opened but the slides won’t be opened. And for the next shift, we’ll have the leisure pool and the slides open but maybe not the lap pool. We may have to shift our operations for what we’re able to come up with for staff.”
“The plan is to open on Memorial (Day) weekend,” Claussen added. “But I cannot promise that. With that being graduation weekend, most of my returners are having brothers, sisters, somebody graduating. And I definitely cannot open without my returners those first couple of days. I need those people to be there.”
Plenty of job openings
While the Aquatic Center is the most demanding, as far as individual qualifications for some employees, a lot of other jobs are available that are less demanding and can be taught on the job.
Parks and Rec is advertising for seasonal positions, but it’s facing an interesting situation.
“We’ve got people who are applying,” Claussen said, “… but they’re applying for every single position. It looks like a lot of applicants but there aren’t a lot of numbers in that. There are a lot of numbers applying for jobs all over the city.”
And that looking-for-any-job applicant might be applying for a job for which they are obviously not qualified.
“For instance we’ve had applications for a tennis instructor,” Rodiek said. “One applicant had no tennis experience, had never played tennis. We’re probably not going to go there.”
About six instructors are needed.
“They’ll usually be basic players with about five years experience,” he noted.
Other programs include golf, Nature Park activities, fishing, soccer, T-ball and kayaking.
“We also partner with the (Brookings) Arts Council. We help them advertise; they staff most of that,” Rodiek said. And Safety Town, which is run by the Brookings Police Department and is always popular, is booked solid.
A total of about 100 part-time employees are needed across the entire spectrum of Parks and Rec summer programs. A general consensus is that that the programs offer good seasonal summer jobs for high school and college students.
While the summer 2020 Parks and Rec season had some low-points – the HAC closure being the lowest – there were some pretty much business-as-usual program offerings and some highlights.
And there were some monetary savings due to shutdowns. The 2020 season had half as many employees: no HAC staff was needed, because it was shut down.
“We had some outdoor programs a couple days a week,” Claussen said. “Certainly, we ran tennis and we ran soccer. That was about it. It started a little bit later, due to COVID and everything. We ran all the way through August with those programs.
“The Nature Park, being a park and being outdoors, was busier than ever.” There were equipment rentals.
“We offered what we could,” Rodiek said. “Some of our biggest impacts were not having the pool open or the aquatics section available.”
The city’s parks, in general, received a lot of traffic, Rodiek noted.
“The Nature Park use was off the scale. Another good example was Larson Park; the disc-golf course was so popular, you almost had to book a tee-time.”
“Across the board nationwide, park use and outdoor sports got a big bump,” he noted. “We had a great year at the golf course. It had probably one of the better years in recent history.”
Rodiek did point out and explain that “we don’t make a ton of money on any of this stuff.”
In fact, like park and recreation activities nationwide which are subsidized by their owning government, Brookings Parks and Rec is subsidized by the City of Brookings. With the exception of Edgebrook Golf Course, which has sometimes broken even, Parks and Rec activities don’t cash flow.
However, the Hillcrest Aquatic Center’s being closed in 2020 saved the city money.
While summer recreation programs are often thought of as being kid-centered, as it goes post-pandemic Brookings will shake up that thinking with an inaugural offering: Brookings Community Games 2021, scheduled for June 25-27. Registration deadline is May 10 and limited to the first 30 teams.
Rodiek briefed the Brookings City Council at a recent meeting, calling the games “an adult team challenge that includes both individual and team activities.” Teams can number 10 to 25 members. He noted that “the memories from this event will last longer than the soreness in your body.”
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]