Rural Communities Can Have Fun, Too!

October 26, 2023, Feature, by Michael Patton

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Strategies to overcome challenges facing rural communities

Rural living is a peaceful and serene way of life, surrounded by nature and open spaces. It’s a way of life that fosters close-knit communities where neighbors know and support each other. With fewer people and less noise, there’s a sense of calm and ease. The pace is slower, allowing people time to appreciate the beauty of the countryside and enjoy the outdoors. It’s a place where you can escape the hustle and bustle of city life and find tranquility in the simplicity of rural surroundings.

However, working in the park and recreation field in a rural community can often be the opposite of “peaceful” and “escaping the hustle.” Rural park and recreation organizations and communities deal with different experiences, opportunities, challenges and battles than our urban and metropolitan neighbors encounter. When it comes to resolving issues, rural communities struggle for a variety of reasons, ranging from the lack of population density to economic factors and policy and funding priorities. As park and recreation professionals who operate in rural communities, what can we do to ensure those we serve are getting their recreational needs fulfilled? What resources are out there to advance and advocate for the work of parks and recreation in our small towns? Lastly, how can we harness these resources so that we can use them efficiently and productively?

For the past six years, I have spent my career working in small-town, rural America. I have worked in the community and economic development field, serving rural communities as small as 500 people to as large as 50,000 in Southeast Idaho. The primary focus of my work has been to assist these rural communities to continue to operate and thrive. My work has consisted of obtaining financial assistance for major infrastructure projects, being at the table for short- and long-term regional planning, hosting community feedback sessions, and taking on many other unique opportunities.

After doing this type of work, I became very fond of rural living and its lifestyle. Because of this, I sought out employment in a rural community. I currently serve as the recreation director for Ephraim City, Utah (population 7,000) and have been in the role for nearly four years. In my experience working for rural communities and rural park and recreation agencies, I have found that there are many different benefits and challenges that are more common to smaller communities.

Every community is different, so not everything that is shared may be pertinent to what your community or organization is going through. Each community has different financial supports, political stances, community champions, staffing resources, community attitudes, and thousands of other variables that form the uniqueness and quirkiness of each rural community. However, the experiences that I will share are those I frequently have encountered and have heard about many times from other rural park and recreation professionals.

Making an Impact

Working in a rural park and recreation agency offers myriad unique benefits that foster a strong sense of community and personal connections. In this idyllic setting, employees truly can immerse themselves in the lives of the residents they serve. One of the most remarkable advantages is the intimate involvement in what is going on within the community. Unlike larger urban areas, where people often get lost in the shuffle, rural agencies provide a chance to witness the direct impact of their efforts. From organizing local events and recreational programs to maintaining community parks, every task is undertaken with a tangible purpose. This hands-on approach not only allows for a deep sense of fulfillment, but also cultivates strong relationships with community members. Working in a rural park and recreation agency means being more than just an employee — it means becoming an integral part of a close-knit community, contributing to its growth and experiencing the joy of making a meaningful difference in the li
ves of its residents.

However, despite the many rewards of working in a rural park and recreation agency, it is important to acknowledge that there are also unique challenges that come with this setting. Here are four common challenges that I have witnessed in the rural communities I have served and have heard from others working in rural park and recreation settings:

  • Lack of financial resources
  • Lack of planning and development
  • Lack of community partnerships and collaborations
  • Lack of sufficient staffing and the absence of self-care

These challenges, although difficult, should not be viewed as roadblocks, but rather as speed bumps. They will slow us down from reaching our final destination, but we are able to go over them and get to where we want to be. Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these four challenges and identify different assets that can aid your small-town park and recreation agency in getting over those speed bumps.

Lack of Financial Resources

It easily can be said that all park and recreation agencies face a lack of available funding. However, rural agencies often face financial scarcity due to having smaller populations and fewer businesses, which results in a much smaller tax base. Additionally, rural areas may experience economic challenges, such as a lack of major industries and limited economic development. Nonetheless, there are means for rural communities to thrive financially. The first one is grants. There are millions of dollars available specifically to fund parks and recreation in rural communities. The trick is to know where to find this money. One fantastic resource is to build a relationship with your council/association of governments. These groups typically are nonprofit organizations that have the ultimate goal of benefiting your community and others within a certain region. Many of these organizations have experience and knowledge of funding opportunities and can help your community be its best self. Do some research and find out what organization is in charge of the region your agency resides in, reach out to them and see if they can point you in the right direction.

To accumulate additional financial resources, it is important to learn about the different local and state taxing legislation. Here in Utah, cities are allowed to impose a recreation, arts and parks tax. This is a sales tax that brings in .01 percent on all retail purchases in your community. The funding allows the city to enhance recreation, arts and parks infrastructure without increasing its general funding. Another funding source is impact fees. Impact fees are charged to new developments to offset the costs associated with growth. These fees can be used to develop new park facilities so that there is sufficient infrastructure to accommodate growing populations.

Lastly, it is vital to get a full picture of your budget and know where every dollar is going. It also is important to look at how you are spending your budget and be honest with yourself on whether your expenses are justifiable and being used efficiently.

Lack of Planning and Development

Many rural communities have outdated or nonexistent plans to help the community thrive. Without a plan, your community and department won’t have direction on where to go. Developing strategies and plans will give purpose to your work and make it easier to accomplish. To begin planning, make sure to give your community a voice. Host open houses to discuss the plans, goals and vision of your park and recreation department. Create surveys for people to share their thoughts without the pressures of others. Once you get the community’s perspective, create goals and objectives so you have a target to aim for. These goals and objectives should be clear, easy to understand and politically supported. Once you have your goals and plans created, don’t be afraid to share them. Make everything easily accessible and find ways to communicate your plans to the community. Getting everyone on the same page and moving in the same direction will make your job a whole lot easier, especially in completing the next point.

Lack of Community Partnerships and Collaborations

Similar to limited funding, rural communities have limited opportunities to form community partnerships and collaborations. This is due to a smaller number of organizations, businesses, agencies, volunteers and groups in the community with which to form important public-private partnerships. With finite potential partners, it is key to foster positive relationships with those you have. To do this, park and recreation agencies should take the time to get to know their local businesses and organizations. Contact the owner of your local “ma and pa” shops and ask them what their successes and struggles are. Work with them to figure out how parks and recreation can benefit them and how they can benefit from what you are trying to accomplish. Doing this adds even more purpose to the work you do, and you begin to gain partners who will advocate for your work.

Staff Shortages and the Absence of Self-Care

With limited funding, there usually isn’t a ton of money to go around to bring in sufficient staffing to get everything done that needs to get done. That means it is crucial to maintain the current staff you do have. Two key concepts that I have learned to maintain your staff are making sure their jobs are easy and prioritizing good communication. By “making sure their jobs are easy,” I am not saying that work should be a breeze and staff get to lie around during their shift. But do they have proper equipment that works? Do they have all the proper training to get the job done right and in a timely manner? Do they have your support to be innovative? Do you have policies in place that are streamlining the work instead of impeding it? These ideas require a major financial investment, but these investments will help keep your current staff and help attract new staff to fill those empty positions.

Lastly, the number one issue I hear about rural parks and recreation is the absence of self-care. Working in parks and recreation in a small town can be difficult, as it is nearly impossible to escape your job or position. In my town of 7,000 residents, I cannot tell you the last time that I was able to go to the grocery store without running into someone who wanted to talk about registering their child for one of our programs or about an upcoming community event. With the town being so small, it doesn’t take long for personal contact information to get out, which leads to people messaging you late in the evening wanting to vent about the baseball game that night. It is very difficult to find time and space to take a breather and relax. Some ideas that I have found helpful for self-care and avoiding potential burnout in a rural community include setting boundaries, establishing expectations, finding a hobby and unplugging from technology. Implementing some of these ideas can create that little separation you may need to unwind and get energized to continue doing what you do.

Working in recreation for a rural community has its many unique strengths and benefits that any park and recreation professional would love to be a part of. Along with all the benefits, there are distinctive oppositions that require professionals to do more to overcome. However, no matter if you are working in a community of 50 residents or hundreds of thousands, we as park and recreation professionals do the work that we do to better the quality of life in our communities, promote healthy living and encourage environmental conservation. With those motives, we rural professionals can overcome our struggles and ensure rural communities can have fun, too!

Michael Patton is Recreation Director for Ephraim City, Utah.