By Executive Director Jeff Stewart
As we began 2020, JCPRD was well positioned to focus on providing and expanding on its many services that the Johnson County community has grown to love. Additionally, there were a number of exciting park and facility projects to begin and complete.
As the COVID-19 pandemic entered Johnson County in March, much of our attention and efforts were dedicated to making necessary adjustments to keep visitors, staff, and volunteers safe. The challenges and disruptions caused by COVID-19 in this unprecedented year have been like nothing we have ever experienced or even dreamed could happen. I am most proud of how our family of employees and volunteers worked together to step up to the challenges and our ability to remain positive, flexible, and creative in order to safely provide the JCPRD services that are perhaps needed more than ever before.
Each year Johnson County Government conducts a statistically valid citizen satisfaction survey through ETC Institute. Along with emergency medical and public health services, JCPRD park and recreation services have historically been rated as one of the top three services that are most important to provide. This was the case again in 2020 when the survey was conducted in February, just before the pandemic entered our community. A follow-up survey was conducted in May to evaluate how the pandemic shifted priorities. Between February and May, the demand for JCPRD park and recreation services increased by seven points, making them the second-highest priority for Johnson County Citizens and equal to Johnson County Public Health. If there was ever a question as to whether park and recreation services were important to a community, I believe that the events of 2020 did in fact illustrate and re-emphasize that they are absolutely essential.
JCPRD’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a major accomplishment. Because of the support and trust of the Johnson County Board of Park and Recreation Commissioners and the efforts made by JCPRD staff, there has been much success in providing most all of our essential services to the community. In many cases it has required creativity and adjustments, but we were able to adapt, and in some cases, provide new opportunities. Virtual programming has even allowed friends and family to participate together in programming opportunities despite stay at home orders or living far away from each other. Recognizing the health benefits to being outdoors and exercising, appropriate adjustments were made that would allow patrons to use our many parks, trails, and golf courses. As a result, JCPRD experienced record-breaking visitation for parks, trails, and golf courses. Through November, when compared to 2019, park visitations were up by more than 1.6 million, totaling nearly 8.4 million.
The COVID-19 pandemic and shortage of health and cleaning supplies forced temporary closure of almost all recreation and culture facilities that JCPRD owns and/or operates. These facilities had to remain closed for about 25% of the year as efforts were being made to obtain supplies and to develop reopening guidelines and procedures that were put in place to mitigate exposure to the virus. JCPRD staff developed these guidelines and procedures for each of the parks, facilities, and services that are offered. These guidelines and protocol were shared with other park and recreation agencies in Johnson County and the KC Metro. They also served as a template for the task force, that included JCPRD representation, that was assembled to develop guidelines for the State of Kansas reopening plan. These efforts allowed for JCPRD to reopen the recreation and culture facilities that welcome over 2 million visitors and participations each year.
Nearly half of JCPRD’s operating budget is through Enterprise Fund operations. These operations receive little to no tax support. The impacts of COVID-19 threatened JCPRD’s ability to continue many services without financial assistance. Recognizing the importance and great need for these services, efforts were made to secure resources that would allow continuation of services in 2020. In addition to other cost-saving mitigation efforts made along the way, JCPRD was able to secure $4.8 million of CARES Act funding. These dollars were used to purchase much-needed cleaning supplies and equipment, and to subsidize the remote learning and childcare needs for thousands of families that were financially struggling – with school being out of session. Additionally, these funds were used towards expenses related to park police patrolling efforts.
In addition to providing access to JCPRD park, recreation, and cultural services during this unprecedented year, JCPRD was very successful in making great progress on many planned projects and initiatives. To mention a few, the Arthur and Betty Verhaeghe Park was developed and opened, providing a beautiful park setting and an access point for the Coffee Creek Steamway Trail. Thanks to the gifts provided by Russell and Helen Means, the fully-accessible observation tower that overlooks the beautiful landscape of Kill Creek Park opened in the fall. The John Barkley Plaza was developed in 2020 and serves as an impressive welcome to Shawnee Mission Park off Renner Road. The space includes a pavilion that is perfect for small gatherings and provides a meeting point from which to explore all of the wonderful things that Shawnee Mission Park has to offer. Initial improvements at Mid-America and Mid-America West sports complexes were completed prior to the summer baseball and softball seasons, which were allowed to commence in early June.
JCPRD was honored to be recognized for a number of services and accomplishments in 2020. The Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce awarded JCPRD with the Corporation of the Year Award in recognition for the outstanding services provided to the community. Meadowbrook Park received the 2020 Capstone Award for Community Impact. The park was opened in the summer of 2019 and has in short time become a destination for many thousands each month. JCPRD’s Kansas City Corporate Challenge (KCCC) program was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. KCCC was the first and is the largest corporate games in the United States. And the “Rising to the Challenge, Suburban Strength in Difficult Times” museum exhibition and the associated “Resilience, Reflection, Rebuilding, Artists Respond to COVID-19” art exhibition were presented with the 2020 Kansas Museum Association Award of Excellence.
With the beginning of a new year there is great hope that we will begin to see the pandemic crisis stabilize. As the vaccine is widely and rapidly distributed to all citizens over the next several months, JCPRD has stepped up to offer to assist with the process. We are working with local health officials in effort to develop plans that will safely provide space within JCPRD facilities to set up temporary clinics for health professionals to administer the shots.
Until the virus is under control, JCPRD will continue to remain flexible in effort to respond to the changes caused by COVID-19. The guidelines and protocols for each park, facility, and service will constantly be evaluated and adjusted as necessary as we do our very best to provide safe park, recreation, and culture services that are essential to the Johnson County community.
In 2021 JCPRD will also focus on a number of major projects and initiatives driven by our community’s needs and desires. First phase development of Cedar Niles Park will be completed allowing for the opening and enjoyment of the 1,000+ acre park. Phase improvements at Mid-America Sports Complex will continue this offseason as both Mid-America and Mid-America West sports complexes are scheduled to be completely renovated over the next several years. Phase two development for Meadowbrook Park will begin, and a number of other trail and park improvements will be completed in many of JCPRD’s other existing parks. Planning efforts that will guide other future improvements will also be completed. Conceptual plans for Theatre in the Park will be completed to identify needs and to shape a vision for the future. JCPRD’s first Art Master Plan will be completed as efforts will be made to introduce art within JCPRD parks and facilities. Continued implementation of the recently adopted Natural Resources Plan will be of great focus as JCPRD continues to protect and restore our precious natural resources. As JCPRD continues to welcome over 10 million visitors and participants annually, additional resources as outlined in the Safety Plan will be provided to ensure focus on public safety in our parks, trails, and facilities is of top priority.
On behalf of all of the Board of Park and Recreation Commissioners and all of us at JCPRD, we want to thank the entire Johnson County community for their ongoing support. We look forward to providing and expanding on the park and recreation services you have enjoyed for years!
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