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Missoula Parks and Rec looks to future after busy year through pandemic
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Missoula Parks and Rec looks to future after busy year through pandemic

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Like many organizations over the past year, the Missoula Parks and Recreation Department had to get a little creative through the pandemic.

From changes in its youth after-school and summer camp programs to thinking differently about daily operations, there have been challenges. Importantly for Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler, there have been plenty of solutions and lots of hope for the future.

"Early on, we faced the most changes, the most uncertainty, just like everyone else," Gaukler said. "But outdoor spaces, public lands were considered essential services, which I completely agree with and support, so we had to, quite frankly, very much study the most recent research available.

"At times we were trying to predict where things were going next with the coronavirus. How do we keep our employees safe? How do we keep our citizens safe? What can we open, what do we need to sanitize?"

Those questions, along with a summer that included a national reawakening on issues of race and disparity, have helped push the department forward over the last year.

Higher park usage

Parks, trails and greenspaces themselves, of course, give people the ability to enjoy the outdoors, generally free of charge. 

Thirty-five percent of Missoula residents surveyed spent more time at outdoor recreation areas during the pandemic and 40% tried new parks and trails, according to a survey by University of Montana professors Jennifer Thomsen and Libby Metcalf early in the pandemic.

The survey also found that 42% of respondents used riverfront trails, which have become even more popular for runners, walkers and cyclists.

"People were really finding these places to help them cope," Thomsen told the Missoulian. "They were really seeing it as a place to have physical, mental health outlets and that may be particularly important in this time of high stress and not having many other places to go, to do some things that they typically would have done."

Time outdoors and its positive impact on mental health is well documented. In fact, in a 2015 study, participants who went on a 90-minute walk through a natural environment showed "reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness," than those who went on a similar walk through an urban environment.

Stress for many has increased over the past year and the CDC even has a webpage specifically for dealing with pandemic-related stress. One of its suggestions is exercise.

"We need to think of the physical aspects, social aspects and the mental aspects in that they're all interrelated," Thomsen said. "You can't just have one and be a healthy person. I think that's the kind of magic question — how can parks, trails public spaces, impact those three areas?"

Between the survey and a plethora of anecdotal evidence, it is obvious people spent more time outside in the Garden City. In fact, NPD, a large marketing company, published data that sales of bikes increased 63% in 2020 from the previous year, while the paddle sports industry saw a 56% boost.

With the pandemic and increased traffic to Missoula's parks, trails and waterways, there were, of course, challenges for staff. One of the first things Parks and Rec implemented was having maintenance staff act as ambassadors in park space around the city.

Employees modeled masking techniques, proper social distancing and proper usage of city parks. 

"We felt we could play a role in this community as to how you could enjoy a high quality of life in Missoula during the pandemic, but you could do it safely, you could do it with good etiquette, and you could do it with friends," Gaukler said.

With many team sports and leagues not played last summer, operational parks staff changed its priorities. Instead of painting lines and grooming ballfields, the focus went to sanitation and installation of COVID-19 related signage.

There was repeated training around safety, as well as an emphasis on keeping parks cleaned and in good shape. Parks staff also found things such as offloading and planting trees to be more difficult due to not being able to share tools and vehicles.

Employees spent a large portion of their time outside and staff had wash stations. Gaukler said they had very few cases in the department and had employees in pods to help cut down on possible transmission.

"They were stellar, I mean talk about committed, patient, understanding that what they did in the field was making life just a little bit easier and quite a bit better for most of our community," Gaukler said.

Child care programs

One mainstay has been the department's free after-school program run at Lowell Elementary, and an additional day care — following COVID-19 relief funding — run on the main floor of the old library building.

The programs allowed them to offer child care 10 hours a day, five days a week as schools went to a hybrid learning model. Schools are now back to in-person learning, but the programs will continue for the foreseeable future. 

The camp starts at just $2 per day and operates on a sliding fee scale. The program at Lowell Elementary goes through the end of the year.

"I feel like folks have all this kind of pent-up emotion from a year of a pandemic, Black Lives Matter, all the injustices of a pandemic, the wealthy getting wealthier, and those who are already struggling, struggling even moreso," Gaukler said. "I feel like that has been our focus point, that has been what we have learned, that is where we are spending our time and resources, is investing in equity.

"We need to come out of this pandemic together, we really need to pay attention to lessons learned and how we can be a better community, a better people and a better place going forward."

There have been changes, including less transportation usage and experiences for those programs. Adaption to that has been done by bringing in presenters as opposed to going and seeing them. Camps at Westside Park will go all summer.

For those running the camps and programs, it has been an important experience.

"This winter when the CARES Act and grants came out, we were able to offer (inexpensive) child care ... it was huge," said Gretchen Sutherland, a recreation coordinator with the Parks Department. "We saw a whole new demographic of kids that we were able to help and it was really cool."

Moving forward

As the calendar rolls toward summer, the Parks Department has a variety of goals and tasks it would like to accomplish.

Continuing to keep a focus on equality throughout its programs is critical. Summer camp demand is higher than ever and the Parks Department is working to meet that demand.

With the possibility of legislation involving reinvestment in communities, there could be more funds available for projects in the future. Construction supplies need to be sourced and there are worries associated with that, but the department wants to keep as many "shovel ready" projects on deck if funding for those become possible.

Recreational sports will likely return this summer as well and the department has to be ready to adjust to that. With recent rule changes by the Missoula City-County Health Department, there is hope they will be able to host large events throughout the warm months.

The future, Gaukler feels, is bright.

"We know that our ability to use our data, our experience, and have programs and projects (ready)," Gaukler said. "It's really important in our ability to acquire and implement programs and projects quickly in a way that it will make a difference, a positive difference for a community.

"At the same time we're going to keep focused, through that lens of equity."

Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Contact him on Twitter @jordyhansen or via email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com

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