In May of this year, the Mammoth Lakes Town Council voted to approve the formation of the Mammoth Lakes Recreation (MLR) Steering Committee. Five months and three Steering Committee meetings later, Council approved the continuation of the group’s work to determine the future of a private MLR entity that could outsource some of the current functions of municipal recreation.
The second incarnation of the MLR Steering Committee whittled its original 30 members down to Mayor Rick Wood, Mayor Pro-Tem Jo Bacon, Recreation Commission Vice-Chair Teri Stehlik, Recreation Commissioner Betsey Truax, Planning and Economic Development Commissioner Colin Fernie, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area Vice President Ron Cohen, Mammoth Lakes Tourism Executive Director John Urdi, Eastside Velo Director John Armstrong, and Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association (ESIA) Chairperson Danna Stroud.
The first MLR Steering Committee recommended preserving the municipal recreation program while also moving ahead with an MLR entity to augment and enhance recreation in the Mammoth Lakes community. The second MLR Steering Committee aims to determine what shape such an MLR entity would take.
“We’re looking to find what is the strategy and structure for recreation,” said Strategic Marketing Group workshop leader Carl Ribaudo at the Nov. 12 meeting. “The next piece is funding and measuring its success.”
Recreation Manager Stu Brown began the meeting with a presentation on the current goals and gains of the municipal recreation program. He noted that the Recreation Department, which has a budget of about $1.1-1.2 million, provides a wide range of programs, camps, and activities for residents and visitors, including summer camps and year-round, seasonal programs. The Department coordinates these programs and activities with three year-round employees, 25 seasonal employees, and about 140 volunteers, he said. Events like the Summer Men’s and Co-ed Softball tournaments generated $40,000 in direct economic benefit, he added.
Brown noted that the average cost to residents for those recreation services is $78.86 per year (not including park maintenance, which about doubles the cost, Brown said). He compared this to $544 annually for Public Safety, $369 for Public Works, and $414 for Town Admin.
In addition to the benefits of the Recreation Department, the Steering Committee also considered the benefits offered by non-government organizations like Mammoth Lakes Tourism (MLT), Mammoth Lakes Housing (MLH), and Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA). Recreation Commission Vice-Chair Teri Stehlik pointed out that the public had similar reservations about MLT, a 501(c) 6 non-profit mutual benefit corporation, as about the proposed MLR. “Financial responsibility and oversight were a huge concern,” she said. But MLT Executive Director John Urdi argued that MLT has successfully circumvented the “analysis paralysis” of Town government to, among other things, rebrand the Town.
Referring to how the Town government operates when making decisions, Urdi said, “It seems to be that we’re going through 7,000 steps, and if one person doesn’t like it, it doesn’t get done. The gains [from MLT] have all come because of the flexibility [of a private entity]. If we were to have too many steps in the system, we wouldn’t get anything done.”
Meanwhile Mammoth Lakes Housing Executive Director Jennifer Halferty offered the example of MLH, a private, non-profit organization. The formation of MLH has given the organization “the ability to be entrepreneurial and be progressive and actively create partnerships, and you just can’t do that in a government setting,” she said.
Finally, ESTA Executive Director John Helm spoke to the strengths of his organization. He noted that ESTA arose from a regional need for increased transportation services. “It’s good to be nimble; flexible; not bogged down by bureaucracy,” he said. He noted ESTA’s “willingness to pursue new revenue sources” through Forest Service and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area contracts. Moreover, because of its creation via a Joint Powers Agreement between Mammoth, Mono County, Bishop and Inyo County, “We have an all-for-one, one-for-all approach,” he said.
Audience member Sandy Hogan cautioned the Committee to consider how different each of these examples of non-government organizations is from the other, down to their very formation. “They’re completely different, all three,” she said.
But with these examples in mind, Steering Committee members began to consider what the value of an MLR might be to the Town.
“These organizations, the common thread we’ve heard, is focus,” said Ribaudo. “We can get the job done with less complexity [than municipal government].”
However, Mammoth Lakes Foundation President and CEO Evan Russell took issue with Ribaudo’s claim that only an organization outside of government could achieve that focus.
“To me it doesn’t sound like you need an MLR, if you have a passionate person with focus,” he said. “What if the Town thinks outside of the box; hires a czar of innovation? The structure right now doesn’t seem as important as the passion and the focus.”
Mayor Rick Wood disagreed. “We can’t move forward to produce the results that the community calls for, and part of that is because of the structure of the government,” he said.
Ribaudo continued to urge consideration of a solution outside of the current municipal structure. Referring to what Mayor Wood called an “unfocused” spending of Measure U and R money, he asked, “How do we be smart about the resources? We don’t want to be 10 years and $20 million down the road and think, ‘Jesus, what did we do?’”
Planning and Economic Development Commissioner Colin Fernie agreed with Ribaudo’s belief that an MLR could better help the Town achieve its goals. “We need to make sure that the product we’re providing here matches what we’re promoting,” he said. “We’re suffering from a lack of perceived value among our guests. We need a variety of programming, facilities and options for these people.” ESIA Chairperson Danna Stroud concurred. “Unfortunately, our eggs are in the tourism basket, and it’s our recreation experience that’s the product,” she said. “If we’re not delivering what we’re promoting, those who choose to come here will choose to go somewhere else.”
Ribaudo suggested that the Committee consider potential MLR strategies, such as partnerships, new product development, innovation, leveraged funding, advocacy, and implementation, to tackle the challenges currently faced by municipal recreation.
“Bring these back; shake these out in a different format, and begin to ask what’s the best structure to implement these strategies,” he said.
The MLR Steering Committee will hold its next meeting on Dec. 2.