Recreation red ink gets city’s focus
A projected $1.7 million shortfall in Aspen’s recreation department budget next year, including more than $800,000 to subsidize the Aspen Recreation Center, has the city exploring everything from fee hikes to strategies for attracting more users to its facilities.In a work session Tuesday, the City Council endorsed fee hikes of as much as 10 percent for adult recreation programs, a 7 percent increase (about $10 more an hour) in what it charges to book an ice rink, and a 7 percent hike in the cost of the Fun Pass, good for use at the ARC and other facilities. In all, the increases will generate some $80,000 in additional revenue, staffers estimated.Even before the city opened its new Aspen Recreation Center, or ARC, in the spring of 2003, the city subsidized its recreation programs and facilities to the tune of $700,000 to $800,000 annually. The ARC was expected to add another $300,000 to the shortfall – the difference between what recreation programs take in and what it costs to run the facilities and programs.”It’s turned out to be larger than that, but you’ve added a lot of new recreation programs, too,” said City Manager Steve Barwick.In addition, utility costs to run the ARC have increased roughly $150,000 since it opened, he noted.Next year’s subsidy of the ARC alone is estimated at $882,402 and the recreation department overall will require $1.7 million in city support, according to budget projections. The city hired Texas-based Pros Consulting to come up with a business plan for the department in the hopes of operating the programs more efficiently.The ARC currently operates at 50 percent of its capacity, according to B.G. Clark, vice president of Pros Consulting. While the facility is maxed out at certain times, on an annual basis, it’s essentially half full. The city should set a target of 65 percent for the facility, he said.Fees to use the ARC currently pay 57 percent of the cost of its operation, Clark added.”The place where we’re going to be able to increase revenues … is by growing the pie. There’s a lot of unused capacity,” said Paul Menter, city finance director.The city has probably done about all it can to reduce staffing costs, according to Clark. The recreation department has cut the equivalent of five full-time positions over the course of this year, at an annual savings of $350,000.The biggest potential for increased use of the ARC means expanding its fitness equipment offerings, Barwick predicted. The facility initially had no fitness machines, but added some this year.The cost of operating two ice rinks year-round is also a big factor in the department’s expenses, according to Barwick.The Lewis Ice Arena at the ARC and the Aspen Ice Garden are operated throughout the year, but filling both rinks during the offseasons and, at times, during the summer, is difficult, Anderson said.”Where did all the anticipated demand for the ice go?” asked Mayor Helen Klanderud.Both sheets of ice see heavy use at certain times of the year, according to recreation officials, but it’s heavily subsidized. It costs $234 an hour to provide the ice, but the fees recoup $150 per hour.The private group that raised the money to build the Lewis Ice Arena wants both rinks kept open, as the whole point in building the new rink was that the Aspen Ice Garden couldn’t handle all of the demand.The hourly cost of booking ice time has been going up about $10 a year for several years, and will again in 2005.Various other user fees will go up, as well.Youth program fees pay 76 percent of the cost of providing the activities – a level that satisfied the council. However, fees only cover 46 percent of the cost of adult programs.”I think 46 percent recovery on the adult programs is way too low,” said Councilman Tim Semrau. “We’ve got to get more recovery out of the adult programs.”The council agreed adult programs should not be subsidized at all, but the city won’t implement huge fee hikes next year. The goal for 2005 is to recoup 55 percent of the adult-program costs.Fun Pass prices will also go up next year, but the council agreed with Anderson’s recommendation to sell the pass to part-time Aspen residents – owners of second homes and timeshares, for example – at the local rate, not the tourist rate.”We’ve had second-home owners walk out over five or 10 dollars. It wasn’t the money, it was the way they were treated,” Anderson said. They want to be considered “locals,” he said.This year, the ARC has attracted an average of 0.8 percent of the tourists visiting Aspen, according to Clark. Guests make up about 16 percent of the ARC’s users, but pay 22 percent of the revenue, as they pay a higher rate, he said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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