(from Maine Townsman, May 1999)
By Pam LeDuc, Recreation Director, Town of Topsham

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) incorporates the words, "The Benefits Are Endless", into its logo. The Topsham Recreation Department ascribes to the words of this logo which serves as a constant reminder to residents and participants that the town’s recreation department events are great things to do. We display the logo’s green and purple colors proudly on our recreational vehicles, staff shirts, and at our activities.

The "benefits" logo has meaning beyond the borders of the Town of Topsham, however. It should be a message to all Maine municipal officials and employees (and citizens) that recreational activities are an important aspect of human life and an important service of local government.

Historically, public parks and recreation programs have been a critical part of our heritage locally, regionally, nationally and even globally. Born out of need, park and recreation programs evolved due to changing cultural, societal and demographic demands and desires.

Why then are park and recreation budgets, staff and programs often the first in line for municipal budget cuts? One reason may be that people are unaware of how vital recreation and leisure activities are to the quality of their lives. Another reason could be that people do not view recreation as a critical local government service.

While fun, happiness and play are vital to growth and development, the expanded role of public parks and recreation is more critical than ever. Whether we know it or not, programs, services, events and opportunities offered by local, state and national park and recreation agencies positively impact many areas of our lives.

The National Recreation and Park Association, in cooperation with various professionals though out the nation, has launched a campaign to increase awareness of the benefits of Parks and Recreation programs. Through fact finding, research and statistical analysis, NRPA found that states, communities and individuals benefit in a variety of ways from recreational pursuits. Four types of benefits were identified and categorized:

Individual Benefits:

• Improves Academic Performance

• Better Health in Later Years

• Immediate Stress Reduction

• Increased Self-Esteem and Confidence

Community Benefits:

• Reduces Adult and Juvenile Crime

• Keeps kids Off the Streets

• Builds strong sense of Community

• Connects Families

Economic Benefits:

• Increases Property Values

• Reduces Health Care and Insurance Costs

• Reduces Employee Absenteeism

• Increases Productivity

• Boosts Tourism

Environmental Benefits:

• Preserves Plant and Animal Wildlife

• Controls Air, Water and Soil Quality

• Provides Accessible Places to Enjoy Nature

• Data gathered through surveys support the fact that communities benefit when Parks and Recreation departments are present.

Statistics show that juvenile crime rates in communities are highest during afterschool hours when adolescents have "nothing" to do. Gone are the days when a parent was able to stay home and supervise their children. Employment figures indicate that 85 % of families with children have both parents employed based on financial need. Kids have little to no supervision, and end up in trouble with the temptation of "spare" time.

The United States incarceration rate is 426 prisoners per 100,000 of our population. This is the highest of any country in the free world. An example of the importance of Parks and Recreation can be seen in the state of Minnesota where an alternative program for afterschool activities was started in 1973 and has reduced their state incarceration rate to 97 per 100,000, ample proof that activities that provide self worth, and confidence really do matter.

It is important to recognized that when communities benefit, everyone benefits . . . including the regional economy. Property values of communities that provide quality recreation programs are distinctly higher than communities lacking recreation enterprises for residents. A six year study by the Steelcase Corporation in 1995 showed that even medical care costs were 55% lower for individuals that participated in fitness progams vs. non participants. ($478.00 for participants vs. $870. for non participants).

Along with the actual dollars and cents of activity comes the known fact that people who exercise regularly are more productive than those who remain sedentary. Studies in corporate America show that company growth rates have nearly doubled by simply instituting fitness programs and recreational events for their staff. Employees that recreate together, are more productive, feel invested and believe that they really are valuable to their company.

In Topsham this spring, the annual Easter Egg Hunt (a partnership between area Business owners and the Recreation Department), brought over 1,000 possible shoppers and participants to the local mall on a chilly Saturday morning. Merchants not only were able to open their doors to new and future shoppers, but graciously donated over $1,200 in prizes to the "egg winners". Early review of the day indicates that sales in the mall increased 64% for a Saturday, and that residents felt a strong sense of "community" commitment from everyone involved.

The State of Maine is a prime example of the benefits of Parks and Recreation. Our statewide economy and unemployment levels are at their respective best. When individuals and families recreate there is certain to be economical benefits. The economic impact of hunting and fishing alone in the state of Maine is estimated to have been an astronomical $621 million in 1996.

The amount of impact that is directly attributed to the recreational activity spurred from the natural beauty of pristine lakes, sandy beaches, scenic mountains and flourishing wildlife that exist throughout the state’s parks and natural resources will easily match the hunting and fishing influence. In simple words, the economy of Maine will benefit as a direct result of the pursuit of recreational interests by residents and non-residents alike. Parks stimulate tourism activity nationwide. Two thirds of all visitors to the state of Oregon stopped at state parks in 1993, generating an annual economic impact to the state estimated at $500 million.

Everyone has somehow benefited by public park and recreation programs at some time in their lives — directly or indirectly. The time has come to make the connection between past experiences and today’s success, yesterday’s activities and tomorrow’s physical and mental wellness and today’s taxpayer support and safe communities for our children and grandchildren.

Whether you are an occasional observer or an active participant, enjoy the benefits.

Communities can no longer slip under rocks, and claim there is no way out when it comes to providing recreation. Innovative attempts at funding recreation programs are evident all over the country. Creative marketing can provide possible financial outlets for programs. Grant writing and partnerships with education and police departments can offer a bounty of funding options. Recreation and Park Directors, city and town officials, and local citizens need to get together and too can reap the benefits of Parks and Recreation!