Spring is here to stay — hopefully — and summer is just around the corner, bringing with it the promise of sunny mornings at the park, afternoons at the beach, and evenings strolling by the river.
Winona’s Park and Recreation department is excited about this summer too, and as always, they are offering a host of community-focused activities for folks of all ages.
Some, like the free lunch program at the East End Rec, yoga and dancing in the parks, and log rolling at Lake Lodge and the Aquatic Center, are bigger and better this year after a trial run last summer. Others, like a baseball-and-movie-night in Sobieski Park or group paddling sessions on Lake Winona, are brand-new.
The programs reflect the changing ways people spend time recreating, said recreation program director Julie Fassbender, and they’re aimed at encouraging people to seek out community spaces and enjoy the beauty Winona has to offer.
The Daily News caught up with Fassbender to talk about what’s been happening in the Park and Recreation department, and why its role in the community is important. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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When you’re developing new programs, what are features you look for?
We try and meet unmet service needs. So we look for ways to serve the community that meet our mission, which is to enhance community. And so sometimes that’s dancing programs in the park and sometimes it’s learn-to-swim programs.
There’s a lot of great organizations in Winona that are serving the community. I think we’re a great town that way. There’s so much going on, and so we try to offer things that don’t detract from what they’re doing. We try not to duplicate.
People’s leisure-time choices have changed, so we’re seeing people choose less of the organized sports and more of the family things that they can do on their own. Like going to parks, going to Lake Lodge, going to the rec center, going to the pool. People are so busy. Picking exactly the right time to offer a team sport or something can be really tricky to fit in people’s calendars, and so people can kind of come and go when it works for them.
We try and pay attention to trends. We do a fair but of reading and research on place-making and neighborhood building and what other cities are doing, what research is saying. Active communities, walkable communities. Trying to be a part of pushing the community toward activity and things they can choose on their own. It’s self-directed leisure time, but it’s provided in a community space.
Could you talk a bit more about how programs have changed over the years you’ve been here?
We’ve changed from a lot of direct sports programming to more of an infrastructure setup. So rather than offering soccer and baseball and lacrosse and golf, we’ve moved towards putting our resources in places where a broader audience can use recreational services.
Lake Lodge is an example of that. When we started the rental program at Lake Lodge, it was during the financial downturn in 2008-09. But we were looking at our tennis program, which was suffering a little bit in numbers. We weren’t seeing more and more people. We were losing a few kids every year, and so we said, “Okay, it costs this much to run tennis in staff time and supplies,” and we took that money and put it toward staffing Lake Lodge Recreation Center. Then we got a $5,000 grant from the BK5K and a donation from Wenonah Canoe for some boats, and that tennis program funded Lake Lodge being open the first summer.
And it really gave us the insight into how we could serve. We were serving about 110 kids in tennis, and that first year we saw over 3,000 people use the lodge. And so it changed our service numbers from 110 kids who were a certain age group to a much broader audience.
Looking at how we can serve the most people with the resources that we have is kind of what drives a lot of our decision-making. If we had all the money in the world, we’d love to be offering more sports programming, but it’s tricky too with the way people’s lives are, and when we work, and when kids are scheduled. It’s hard to find the time. This is a way where people can kind of decide on their own how and when and how often they recreate.
What makes a park and recreation department valuable?
Quality of life is an important part of how we support this community … and being able to provide people with positive quality recreational opportunities. It keeps (Winona) alive and well and active and connected. I think we play that kind of a role in the community.
We definitely don’t repave the roads, but we use them to get places to have fun. It all fits together in the puzzle, I think. It’s something that I think is sometimes undervalued when you have it, but when it’s gone, you miss it. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone. We’re not going anywhere, but it’s one of those things.
With the West Rec possibly becoming a skate park, how will that complement what you have to offer?
With the West Rec and the skate park at the East Rec, we’re kind of facing two problems. One is that the current skate park is deteriorating. When it was built as a site, it was intended to be temporary. It was never intended to have a 30-year life. We’ve worked on small repairs, but it hasn’t got the funding attention that it needs to be completely rebuilt, which is a really big financial project. And at the West Rec, we closed it as a recreation center in 2008-09 during the economic downturn, and we haven’t reinvested in it.
So we’ve got kind of an empty unused building and a facility that needs attention, so being able to put them together will hopefully solve two problems with one solution. And working with Anthem, which is the company that’s looking to do the operation of the skate park, it sets up an environment where it’s the right people doing the right thing.
We think this partnership, as it continues to move forward, would be a great solution to two challenges that we’re facing, so we’re hoping it works out.