Your Field of Dreams?

by Rick Stryker, P.E.

There is no "great camp" without "great programming." And while there are many great programs that require almost no facility support at all (what do you really need for a campfire sing-along?), the right property improvements can surely enhance campers' experiences. Yet far too often, those supporting facilities — even very fancy and expensive ones — seem mismatched to the programs that they're intended to support. Too large, too small, too sophisticated, and even too remote are all descriptions of fields, buildings, and activity areas that simply do not match the programs that they host. In this column, we're going to look at a few ways that these mismatches come to be, as well as some ways to avoid them or at least lessen their effects.

What Can Go Wrong?

Nonprofit organizations live and die as much by the generosity of donors as they do through intense management of their assets and resources. Certain situations seem to repeat themselves. Here's one that we encounter all too often: A donor, who we'll call Mr. Moneybags, offers to donate something large and visible, say an electronic sports field scoreboard. The camp has never considered this sort of improvement, but it's sure catchy, and since Mr. Moneybags is picking up the cost of the equipment, what can go wrong?

Well, from both a facilities and program standpoint, there's plenty to go wrong. Part of the camp's sports program provided opportunities for some campers to hang the numbers on the old setup, but now the relatively delicate electronics will have to be handled and managed by an adult. Should the camp hire more staff to work the scoreboard? Certainly not! But where does that leave the scoreboard? On top of that, "camp wars" used the old scoreboard backdrop for motivational artwork that was renewed each summer. The new scoreboard spells the end of that facet of the "camp wars" tradition. Campers and program folks are flexible and resilient, so these are certainly not insurmountable obstacles.

But what about the facilities issues? There was never any need for power at the field before, but now there is. The camp could call the power company for a new service! And since they're going to have to add a new service, they might as well light the field and get more hours out of every day. But the sports field lighting industry requires that for the safety of the players, lights must be mounted on poles not lower than forty feet tall. That's right: forty feet. That's as high as a four-story building! So the camp will need to mount the scoreboard on poles. It turns out, though, that the township has an ordinance prohibiting structures taller than thirty feet, and the camp will need a variance for the night lighting. Wow! Before you know it, Mr. Moneybags' generous donation has morphed into a really expensive proposition, where the cost of the scoreboard is dwarfed by other expenses and lost in regulatory hoopla. Not to mention, these discoveries are delaying the project and the donor is growing impatient. What seemed like a really great idea at the outset has cost the camp time, money, energy, and perhaps the confidence of this and other well-intentioned donors.

For fear of offending the donor, camp leadership can often be reluctant to ask, "What can go wrong?" As often as not, when they do pose the question (early enough to make a difference), they're often unwilling to listen to the answers and adjust the plan accordingly. Instead, camps sometimes forge ahead — driving a square facilities peg into an otherwise perfectly round program hole.

Plan Thoroughly and Identify Program Needs

What can be done to avoid these situations? First off, my well-organized clients all have extensive, detailed, and prioritized wish lists complete with broad cost estimates. Where an opportunity presents itself, they're ready to check their dream sheet to see if Mr. Moneybags is offering to make a dream come true. Sometimes it happens just like that, and they're able to let him know that he's just what they've been waiting for! They know what model scoreboard they want, where it will go, how much it will cost, and how it will be powered. They know what the other additional costs will be (like powering it), and they've already rejected adding lights because of the regulatory red-tape. They even have a pretty good idea of how long it will take to make this happen. All this efficiency is simply an outgrowth of dreaming big and planning thoroughly.

But what if the wish list doesn't include a scoreboard? Do you risk offending Mr. Moneybags by declining the offer? My successful development friends (in the nonprofit realm) and marketing friends (in the for-profit realm) tell me that redirection is the key to success in this situation. By having that list of needs at the ready, turning the conversation to discuss a documented, ready-to-go need isn't all that hard. Say, for example, that there are other plans for the sports field in question. It seems that spectators have to sit on soft, squishy ground because the field drains runoff in that direction. The identified program need is to rework what you have by improving the drainage. Play will resume sooner and people will have a dry place to sit and watch. Success now depends on the camp being able to convey that there's a more immediate, identified, and quantified need that Mr. Moneybags can fill.

Program Creep

There is another way that programs become mismatched to their supporting facilities. We'll call it "program creep" — when the facility use is changed incrementally over time. With each small adjustment, addition, or modification, the facility space becomes less suitable for the program. Sometimes it's a change to the details of what's being offered. Consider the difference between a craft building where campers make coil pots from re-usable (non-hardening) clay to a space that offers wheels for throwing pots, glazing, and kilns. The focus of the program is still manipulation of clay, but the requirements for space and power (often three-phase power for kilns!) are vastly different. Like the scoreboard example, this can happen when a wellmeaning donor offers the wheel or kiln and short-sighted camp leadership accepts it without thinking through the program implications and facility impacts.

Old Facilities, New Markets

Finally, imagine listing mountain biking on both the summer camp and retreat activities Web pages, but only possessing youth-sized mountain bikes! Much like that, the most common facility mismatch we see occurs when organizations are trying to stretch their occupancy into new seasons and markets. It may sound intrusive, but most building codes provide that if the use or occupancy of a building changes, its features and components must be checked for compatibility with the proposed use. Consider, for example, the changes necessary to accommodate wedding receptions and formal events in the dining hall that was designed and built for summer campers. Inside the building, the necessary check includes toilet facilities, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, ADA-accessibility, and floor space, among other things. Outside the building, the check will likely include parking, lighting, and wastewater (septic) facilities. Although the uses appear similar (food preparation, dining, and gathering people), the user group needs aren't identical. The same considerations should be given to other facilities on camp, including cabins built for campers that a camp would like to use for adult retreat groups or grass sports fields that a camp would like to market for local little leagues.

Without a doubt, these are tough economic times, and camps need to plan and work smart to stay profitable. Successful and dynamic programs are the first and best way to make that happen; but the way to achieve that is through a well thought-out and complete facilities plan that supports those programs today, as well as their coming changes. The energy and time you spend will pay dividends far beyond the initial investment.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with a particular passion for helping camps with infrastructure, planning, and regulatory issues. He can always be reached at campfc@ptd.net or (570) 828-4004.

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