Residents in Fairborn, Ohio, have had few outlets for cooling off during the hot summer months since their local public pool was closed in 2009 and subsequently demolished. Construction of a new pool was not in the budget, but that didn't stop the Fairborn Parks and Recreation Division from looking for other solutions. This past summer, through a partnership with the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, residents were overjoyed to have access to the base's Prairie Pool for the summer.
So were service members at Wright-Pat. Like other military installations, the base had found itself severely affected by budget cuts and sequestration, and opening its pools to the public wasn't just an act of goodwill. "One of the budgets that was severely affected was our pools," says former installation commander Col. Cassie B. Barlow. "We found ourselves in a position where we would not be able to open the pools because we didn't have the money."
A community without the money to build a pool, and a military base without the funding to support its existing pools? It was a perfect partnership opportunity, with only one thing standing in the way: government red tape. "There are different colors of money in the government, and we have to be careful that we're spending taxpayer dollars on the right things," explains Barlow. "The other thing is that we're typically not allowed to serve people from off-base. They really have no privileges on base, and we had to get approval for them to have that privilege."
To do so, Barlow put together a special waiver request last fall and passed it through proper Air Force channels. "That was the lengthy part of the process — sending the waiver up through the Pentagon," she says. "It was eventually approved at the Secretary of the Air Force level and came back down to us just in time to open the pool for Memorial Day."
The situation at Wright-Pat is characteristic of many military installations across the country. Sequestration is taking its toll on military budgets in a way that administrators of municipal recreation programs know all too well, and they're more than happy to lend a hand. "The relationship between the San Angelo, Tex., community, city government and Goodfellow Air Force Base has always been very symbiotic," says San Angelo parks and recreation director Carl White. "They help us out all the time with volunteers for different projects or events."
The city and Air Force base have been brainstorming a list of ways to bring down the barriers — some literal — separating military recreation services from community members. "Our parks and recreation advisory board started talking about building a new multigenerational recreation facility," says White, adding of the Air Force, "Their recreation facility is the best in town. Someone suggested we just move the fence and open up those facilities to the public."
While such a big collaboration is unlikely anytime soon, the two entities have a long list of other opportunities to leverage resources. "They have all of this recreation gear — kayaks, canoes, bounce houses for events — and they historically haven't rented those out to us and are open to doing that," says White. A separate partnership has opened a recreation area leased from the city but maintained by the base to public use for flea markets. "We've also talked about opening up the cabins to the public for camping, and the base would charge a gate fee and bring in some new revenue," adds White.
It's a two-way street, of course, with the community stepping up to supplement resources that the base may not be able to provide. "As we started to reduce our budgets, one of the things that we lost was our intramural sports program," says Barlow. "It was successful and popular, but we were unable to pay for referees. So some of the local communities offered to allow our teams to participate in their leagues at reduced costs."
Municipal programs are making room for military personnel on sports fields and at pools and recreation and fitness centers, depending on what makes the most sense for each community. Some are even looking at ways to share labor resources. "They have a fairly cumbersome process for hiring lifeguards," says White, of Goodfellow AFB's three pools. "High school and college kids don't want to go through the process. We're looking at an agreement that would use our system to contract the lifeguards so that both groups would have access to them."
All branches of the armed forces have recognized the benefits of collaborating with local communities, but they also recognize that there's a lot of red tape to cut through. "We've been talking about it for two or three years," says Ed Miles, the U.S. Department of Defense's Morale, Welfare and Recreation policy director. "Everyone says the same thing: 'I'd love to establish partnerships, but how do we do it? What's the first step?' "
Miles is currently overseeing the creation of a Partnership Toolkit, a digital resource designed to make the process easier. "Part of it will be this electronic repository for capturing all of the stuff that's going on with partnerships," Miles says. "I want to be able to filter by service, installation or program and by type of document, so that if someone came to you and said, 'We need a partnership with XYZ Library because the library on base doesn't have enough funding,' you would be able to go to this site and look up who else has done a library partnership. You'd find a copy of their memorandum of agreement or letter of intent or whatever document they used to structure the agreement, and then you would take off and do what you need to do."
The database ideally would also include a list of local laws that would have to be considered, says Miles, though the final product is still far from ready. Though the objective is set, there are still the logistics of how the site will be hosted, who will be responsible for maintaining it and reviewing information to make sure it is accurate. "A lot of it will depend on cost, of course," Miles adds. "But I'd like to think we'll have something concrete by the end of this calendar year."
Meanwhile, the individual branches of the military are working to assist their installations in whatever ways they can. The Air Force has been the most proactive, setting up an office within the Pentagon specifically to assist its bases with community partnerships. "It's a group of people from many different career fields focused on those partnerships and making them as easy as possible," Barlow says. "The process of going through them and having them traverse the Pentagon is a lot easier."
THE MODERN MILITARY
While generating revenue to keep existing programming open is an immediate priority for many military installations, equally important is forging a sustainable model that aligns with the changing needs of military personnel. "Seventy percent of the military population lives off-installation now," says Miles. "A lot of people already go to their local parks and recreation organization for services. So how do we make it better?"
As military members and families become more integrated into their communities, it only makes sense that programs and resources do, too. "I see going to communities and their recreation centers and borrowing instructors for classes like aerobics and Zumba," says Miles. "We go to them, they come to us, maybe we alternate. It's about leveraging resources and capabilities."
It's a vision that most municipal recreation programs share. Before opening its pools for public use, one of the first things administrators at Wright-Pat did was approach each of its 29 local municipalities and seek their blessing. "We don't want to be a competitor and pull people from other local pools," says Barlow. "To a tee, every municipality agreed with us: the more services for our community, the better."