Upper Arlington officials recently approved a plan more than two years in the making that they say will guide the city's parks and recreation facilities and programming for the next decade.

It covers facilities upgrades, programming and staffing and was passed by a 6-0 vote Nov. 26. Councilman Brian Close was absent from the meeting.

"The parks, I think they are at the heart of every single person who lives here," councilwoman Sue Ralph said. "We have to be really serious and careful about what we do. I think this report is strong, it's reliable, it's exciting, it's quite inspirational and I think it really bodes well for the growth of our parks and recreation department."

Council did not approve specific projects at the city's 21 parks. The plan is backed by information collected through public meetings, a community survey and focus groups.

"It provides the foundation for the future decision-making of the department," said Leon Younger, a representative of PROS Consulting, which assisted the city with the plan. "It identifies needs, deficiencies and trends to guide investments. It's really about how to effectively use resources to provide quality services."

Review results

According to Younger, "key findings" that emerged from the review of Upper Arlington's parks and recreation system and programming found an "appreciation for the park system, without a doubt."

The community survey found 81 percent of respondents participated in multiple programs in the past year, and 90 percent of them participated in one or more programs. Additionally, 90 percent of respondents rated programs as good or excellent.

The survey found 52 percent of respondents used Northam Park the most, followed by Thompson Park (42 percent) and Fancyburg Park (36 percent).

Conversely, it found Devon Pool (8 percent), the Upper Arlington Senior Center (8 percent) and the Northam Park tennis courts (4 percent) were the least-used facilities.

From a programming standpoint, the plan states the Parks and Recreation Department should standardize polices across each of its divisions and should develop new programs that reflect "emerging trends." It also says the department should conduct annual reviews of "life cycle" and cost considerations for existing programs "to keep programming fresh while meeting cost-recovery goals."

The plan recommends the city consider enhancing park pathway systems and adding trail connections, while developing maintenance standards to preserve park assets.

Further, it says the city should address drainage issues to increase sports field playability and create design standards so amenities like benches, picnic tables, bike racks and signs are uniform.

Only 36 percent of survey respondents supported building a new Upper Arlington Senior Center, but 81 percent supported "further study of indoor recreation space that would serve all ages."

Future goals

The plan also set criteria for prioritizing Parks and Recreation Department capital projects over the next 10 years and established the following goals for the department and city officials:

* Acquire the appropriate level of parkland to meet the community's needs for additional trails, sports fields and neighborhood parks, along with funding to develop desired amenities.

* Achieve the appropriate level of indoor and outdoor community recreation space for people of all ages and abilities.

* Develop a philosophy in which core programs drive design and operations of all facilities, both indoors and outdoors, to maximize the customer experience for people of all ages, interests and abilities.

* Incorporate design standards for all parks and amenities to support efficient operations.

* Incorporate a business approach to all operations in order to meet expected costs. Meet cost-recovery levels in programs, maintenance, operations and partnerships and incorporate all available funding sources to provide cost-effective services to the community.

"The recommendations should serve as the goals, strategies and priorities that our department should pursue in the delivery of Parks and Recreation services," Upper Arlington Parks and Recreation Director Debbie McLaughlin said.

Several residents spoke in favor of continuing tennis programming at Northam Park at both a Nov. 19 council conference session and the Nov. 26 regular meeting.

Resident Caroline Lahrmann said tennis is popular among a wide range of age groups.

Lahrmann urged council members to oppose building structures such as shelter houses or plazas at the 22-acre Northam Park and look instead at larger parks like 49-acre Thompson Park or Fancyburg Park, which is 25 acres.

"People like their green space," Lahrmann said. "They like the amenities that have been there for years and they want to see them preserved and protected, and they want to go to the parks to experience nature."

Prior to council's vote, Upper Arlington Parks and Recreation Advisory Board Chairman Matt Petersen said the PRAB supports the plan, and is pleased that it is sensitive to the "attachment" residents have to local parks.

"We as a body support the Parks and Recreation Comprehensive Plan as a guiding and flexible framework that provides for the future of our community's park system," Petersen said. "It's comprehensive, and we have every expectation that it will inform future decision-making."

He said advisory board members recommend city officials look for partnerships with entities such as Upper Arlington Schools and Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks to help expand recreation programming and opportunities to the community, that they continue to seek PRAB and public feedback prior to any major park development proposals or investments, that they seek to increase recreation access through land acquisition and collaboration with nearby entities and that they make an indoor, multigenerational facility an "important priority."