How much is recreation worth? In Avon, the answer may be variable
The first proposed rate hike for the town's rec center since 2020 sparks controversy among Town Council members
During the Tuesday, Oct. 24 Avon Town Council meeting, one specific portion of the proposed budget for 2024 was particularly controversial. The Avon Recreation Center is considering raising its rates for the first time since early 2020, and council members had feedback.
The Avon Recreation Center serves a number of purposes — for some, it is a quality workout facility, for others, a site of family bonding over physical activity, and for still others, a way to spend a day staying active. Funded by a general obligation bond by Avon residents when it was built in 1995, and subsidized through the town of Avon’s recreation budget, the center provides services to locals and visitors alike, though at slightly different rates.
Michael Labagh, recreation director for the town of Avon, explained the staff recommendation to raise both daily rates and membership rates in 2024 for the Avon Recreation Center for seniors and residents.
Citing seven “comparator facilities” as references to compare with Avon’s rates, Labagh presented data that showed Avon’s daily and monthly rates to be below average for both locals and visitors. Based on the data, and the need to reestablish the recreation center’s pricing structure, Labagh recommended raising the daily senior and adult rates by $2, the monthly membership rates by $4 for adult and youth local residents and senior non-residents, and the monthly membership rate by $8 for senior residents.
Responding to a question from Avon Mayor Amy Phillips, Labagh explained that senior rates, in particular, were targeted to increase to match peer facilities.
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“Within the analysis, we’ve noticed that it’s a common theme among our comparators that the older adult rate tends to be slightly higher than the youth rate, so that’s where that recommendation came from,” Labagh said.
Within the comparator communities, the definition of “older adult” began between 59 and 65 years of age, which prompted some debate. Both Phillips and Mayor Pro Tem Tamra Underwood suggested raising the age at which a person was considered a “senior,” and maintaining the lower rate for that age group.
Council member Rich Carroll stood in opposition to raising rates at all from early on in the conversation.
“I just look at what’s going on around us — we’re going to start charging for parking, food costs are just through the roof, eating out costs a lot of money — I mean, this is one of the one things someone can do that’s really good for them,” Carroll said. “I understand the cost recovery, and that’s important, but I also think we need to make sure this stays affordable, and people can attend — that this isn’t a barrier for people to come here.”
Promoting equity in recreation access
The initial proposed rate changes prompted a larger conversation among council members and Labagh about the direction the town’s recreation department wants to take on promoting equity in access to recreational opportunities.
Council member Chico Thuon extended Carroll’s emphasis on affordability, connecting the question of how best to promote equitable access to resources across Avon.
“In order to keep it equitable for the whole community to enjoy our services, has that been addressed? I didn’t see that in there (in the report in the council packet), and does it correlate with the school district’s free and reduced lunch program?” Thuon asked Labagh.
The recreation center does not currently have any programs for subsidizing admission rates, Labagh said. However, though not featured in the packet, creating such a program is a future aim of the recreation department, he said.
“Next year, one of our department goals is to create a formal scholarship program for the entire department,” Labagh said. “Currently, we utilize the free and/or reduced lunch program for some of our programs, so after-school youth programs and then also swim lessons, and then we’re looking to extend that into family memberships at the recreation center, whether it’s a partial discount or a full discount,” Labagh said.
Thuon stated his support for the recreation department prioritizing the development of an equity-based program. “Michael, that would be one of my concerns, and I would like to have that fast-tracked, and I’m not sure how everybody else feels, but that should be a top priority for Town Council to get on board with, making sure that something is equal for everybody to enjoy in our community,” Thuon said.
“If you do a drive-by of the basketball courts over toward the pickleball courts, soccer fields, you’ll see that there are young families wanting sport, wanting exercise, wanting swimming, and it might be a bit above their pay grade to pay 140 bucks a month for a family,” Thuon said.
Another question council members raised was whether the comparison of the Avon Recreation Center with the listed peer institutions was fair, given the differences in the facilities.
“And then for the comparators, you’re comparing apples to eggs. If you’re comparing Aspen to what we have, it’s not the same feeling. Or if you go to Steamboat (Springs), or even Summit County. I’ve been to all the rec centers, ours doesn’t have all those amenities, so to be able to actually compare it dollar for dollar, I don’t really see that,” Thuon said.
Other council members did not want to undersell the value of Avon’s recreation center.
“It’s a real struggle to cost recover enough and still make it affordable, but you can’t undersell your services, for that reason and other reasons. This is a quality establishment, it should charge a price,” Underwood said.
Council member R.J. Andrade also addressed the potential that keeping costs low might lead to overcrowding.
“If our rates are considerably lower than our peer communities, we could get overrun and too busy,” he said.
“I don’t want the struggle always to be that you’re always offsetting your costs, because that’s not totally what you’re there for,” Thuon said to Labagh. “I don’t want that to be the challenge or the exercise that we’re presenting to you. Clearly it can’t be a total loser, but it’s something that I don’t think we’ll ever make money doing — I mean, will we?”
The Avon Recreation Center has met or exceeded statewide cost recovery standards for public recreation centers over the past five years.
According to the Oct. 24 Town Council packet, the Recreation Management State of the Industry report included a cost recovery range for public recreation range between 43.5 and 64 percent, and the National Parks and Recreation Agency Performance Review reported a cost recovery range between 26 and 51 percent.
Every year since 2018, the Avon Recreation Department’s overall cost recovery has been 70 percent or higher, except in 2020, when the rate still met standards at 49 percent cost recovery despite the pandemic severely affecting visitation.
The recreation department’s general goal is to land between 50 and 65 percent cost recovery, Labagh said. The recreation department’s program-based cost recovery goals operate on a sliding scale depending on the program, ranging between 50 and 160 percent, with the lower end of cost recovery focusing on benefiting the community, and the higher end focusing on benefiting individuals.
2024 will be the Avon Recreation Department’s most expensive year in recent history, following the addition of two additional full-time staff members in 2023, but the program will also be receiving a greater subsidy from the town. The recreation department’s budget for 2024 is just over $3 million, not including the $750,000 repair to the recreation center’s aquatics deck that will be funded through the capital projects fund. The proposed rate increases would have provided the recreation center with an estimated additional $26,000 in revenue in 2024.
No decisions were made at last week’s meeting regarding the recreation center’s 2024 rates. Labagh will return at a future Avon Town Council meeting with revised suggestions for rate changes to present to the council.