Winning Pocketbook Support for Public Facilities

What it takes to sufficiently fund a community aquatic center.

Scot Hunsaker | 1997
Park and Recreation

Money may not buy happiness, but when the time comes to get an aquatic center or multi-purpose public recreation facility out of the dream world and into reality, it’s going to take money to make those dreams come true.

That money can come from many different sources. Direct funding can be obtained from appropriations of public funds and from private contributions buy interested parties. But, chances are, if the proposed facility is of any substantial size and scope, it is going to require capital markets financing. In most cases, that means approval of indebtedness is going to have to be put before the community’s voters.

The future of your proposed facility depends upon the decisions of those voters. But you donêt have to – indeed, for success, you had better not  simply lay your proposal out on the table and hope its obvious merits will carry it through election day. You can give the bond issue a boost toward passage by preparing a solid base of information, and by organizing a well-developed plan for presenting that information to the key leaders in the community and to the voters at large.

First Establish a Team

No man is an island. And certainly no one in public service will advance a proposal À no matter how valid À without developing a group of influential supporters with whom to climb the mountain of public opinion. So before you take step one, assemble representatives from a cross-section of constituents to review the proposal participate in decision-making and sign off on the plan to be place before the public. You might include representatives from the parks and recreation board, senior groups, school districts, private business representatives, sports teams, construction professionals  any special interest group or professional group that might have valuable opinions and insights to help shape and support the development of the project.

Get the Facts

After you have your planning committee in place, you need a plan. When any business person goes to the bank for a loan, the first thing the officer wants to look at is a business plan. How well do you know your market, how completely have you researched your business? Well, the city council and the voting public who will be deciding the fate of your bond issue will demand precisely the same attention to detail.

To make sure the plan is complete, accurate and appropriate, do the homework necessary to develop a complete plan for the project, and present it to your committee. This plan will begin with a rough project design of the envisioned facility, including detailed estimates for construction costs, total project costs, ongoing maintenance and operational expenses, and personnel requirements.

But this is just the beginning. A complete plan will also research the market area. Look at: competing facilities and their impact on the proposal; economic and demographic issues to determine the populationês expected interest in, and financial ability to, participate in planned programs; what kinds of programming will be desired; and how much revenue can be expected from the facility. Not only will this complete study give you the information needed to gain support and answer critics, it may also uncover potential flaws in the original concept, allowing you to rethink and redesign the proposal before opponents get the chance.

Create a Campaign

Once you have a winning plan, it’s time to develop a plan to win. First, try to get your bond issue placed on a ballot when it will have the greatest chance for success. Assess the mood of the general population. If a taxpayers revolt is in the air and your proposal is slated to appear alongside a dozen other sales tax and bond issue requests, you might want to reconsider your timing.

Second, develop a public relations strategy. Beginning as early as six months prior to the election, develop a campaign slogan that identifies your proposal as a positive, desirable benefit to the community at large. Then, create specific public relations materials that focus on the benefits the new facility will create for various user groups in the voting area.

Most of the information you need for these materials will already be available to you or your public relations professional in your facility plan. Does your proposed facility fill a gap in community recreation needs? Does it provide a much-needed center for seniors to receive therapeutic services? Does it create a revenue-producing competitive/recreation venue for the community? The research contained in a detailed plan will help you identify those gaps, needs and capabilities and make it easier to communicate them through public relations efforts.

With positive literature in hand, the next step is to get it read. Once again, strength is in numbers. Identify the likely user groups in your service area. Enlist respected, influential spokespeople from those groups to met with members, disseminate the information and discuss the many benefits the new facility will bring them specifically. Meet with school groups, athletic organizations, medical, health and fitness organizations, senior clubs, potential corporate users, and civic groups À any group of potential users who would benefit from the development and operation of this project.

Donêt be afraid to be a namedropper. Obtain support from influential groups in the community, including the chamber of commerce, school districts and parent/teacher organizations, police groups, and corporations. Then use that support through written endorsements in brochures, fact sheets and press releases.

Be sure to enlist the local media in your efforts. Newspapers, television and radio reporters are always looking for a good story, and the sooner you get your information to them, the more likely they will be able to present it in a positive manner. Should criticism develop, you and all your spokespeople will have all information needed to counter it immediately and effectively in the carefully researched and documented plan.

Accent the Positive

You can’t eliminate all opposition to your proposal, no matter how obvious its benefits are to the community. There will always be disgruntled landowners, concerned competetive interests and disinterested parties unwilling to support another public project. You shouldn’t ignore these positions, but, you also shouldn’t focus all your efforts on trying to turn their opinions around.

Concentrate the majority of your time, finances and energies on those groups who are already in your corner, and focus your efforts on ensuring and increasing their numbers. Emphasize the importance of every vote, and establish voter registration drives within support groups. As Election Day approaches, enlist volunteers to participate in telephone surveys and neighborhood canvassing. Volunteers are most effective at urging supporters to get to the polls and answering unresolved issues for any fence sitters.

Finally, remember it ainêt over till it’s over! Assume neither victory nor defeat until the polls close. Have volunteers pass out literature and answer questions at supermarkets, mall and polling places until the last ballot has been cast.

As the song suggests, “money makes the world go •round.” With the right plan both for the proposed facility and for the campaign for community financial support your dream for a new aquatic/recreational facility will result in an exceptional and sufficiently funded community asset that you and your supporters will be proud of for many years.