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A View From the Third Floor

PPL Partners With “Rec” Department Amid COVID Reshaping

Hey gang,

During my years as a news reporter I had the opportunity to write about the Potsdam Recreation Department (also known as Rec) and what it offers to its community. Rec Director Trey Smutz has been dedicated to his work there and gives as much of himself to the community as possible. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that he and assistant Derek Greene really are the “department.”

When I left the paper in June and took this job at PPL, I was immediately asked by Potsdam Town Board Member Sarah Lister if I would be interested in joining the Recreation Committee, and I jumped at the opportunity . . . In fact, I think I said, “yes,” before she finished asking the question.

A big part of that ask was the interest in developing adult programming for Rec, as many of the programs and events usually involve youth, with hockey and figure skating in the winter months and the camp-style summer rec program.

Naturally, as Trey and I got together, the gears started going: What resources are available for adults through rec? How can we promote the department outside the Pine Street Arena as well as in? How do we create programming that adheres to the safety procedures surrounding this wretched pandemic, as it obviously has people at a distance from one another and has limited programming of all sorts?

While we work on addressing some of these questions and are putting together programming, we want to hear from you, our community, about what adult programs you would like to see. Some of you have already pitched ideas that both Trey and I have been talking about (like pickleball and fly fishing) which made us feel confident we were on the right path.

Below I have written up my recent interview with Trey, about our steps ahead in new programming, about how the pandemic has impacted Rec, and about how it will shape it going forward.

So get the latest on your Potsdam community below and give Trey and me your feedback on what you want to see for programming and let’s have a conversation. 

Trey can be reached at tsmutz@vi.potsdam.ny.us, and, as always, you can get me at weckert@potsdamlibrary.org

And, straight from the start, I’m glad to be here!

Your Adult Program Coordinator,

William “W.T.” Eckert

The playground at Sandstoner Park, just outside Pine Street arena. The pandemic has led to less traffic at the playground and requires sanitation after each use.

POTSDAM – The pandemic has been a trying time for everyone, including Potsdam Recreation Department Director Trey Smutz.

Sitting inside the echoing walls of the Pine Street Arena, Trey took a break from removing the puck marks from the boards along the side of the currently ice-free rink to talk about adult program ideas in partnership with the Potsdam Public Library.

This isn’t the first time I’ve talked with Trey about adult programming. Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed programs like free kayak and paddle board rentals during the summer months, nature hikes and bocce ball leagues, and snowshoeing or cross country skiing trips.

Amid the many goals we are trying to reach through this partnership is to provide not just a link between literacy and the natural resources through ideas such as borrowing a certain type of book from the library and getting a free rental from Rec or by sharing resources, like keeping rentable snowshoes at the library as well as at Pine Street Arena, but to also show that the Rec Department does more than cater to the youth in the area.

“We definitely want to support our supporters,” Trey said of the partnership with the library. “So if we are in a relationship or have something good going with the library, we want to funnel as many people to the library that they are trying to funnel here.”

A Pandemic-altered Rec Department 

Trey has talked with me and local officials, at length, about the changes the Rec Department has had to face since the pandemic shut down communities and isolated people from group activities, including the possibility that there will be no open skating at the arena until 2021.

Summer programming was also shut down and the beaches were delayed in their opening and had to close earlier than expected. The pandemic also prevented other events from being held after the ice was taken out of the rink, like the Potsdam Humane Society’s Strut Your Mutt and the Brew-Ha-Hops Craft Brew & Cider show hosted by the At The Arc Jefferson – St. Lawrence for The Foundation of St. Lawrence NYSARC.

The spring events, when the ice is out and the compressors are off, supplement some of the arena’s downtime, he said, making the timing of the pandemic even more trying for the Rec Department. 

“We could set up tables and chairs and we can provide different activities for community members that might not necessarily be here when the ice is in and it’s freezing cold,” he said. “So having lost that extra revenue there, it was just a waiting game to see how we were going to turn this Summer Rec Program into something that is viable amidst these concerns.”

It was ultimately determined that holding the summer program would have been too much of a risk, especially with the frequently shared equipment threatening to spread the virus.

“So it was a really hard decision not to be able to do summer rec and have those kids come here like they have every year, and certainly it was difficult trying to get the beaches open and adhering to the guidelines of the governor’s office, or county legislators, or wherever it may be coming from,” he said. “It was just kind of an unknown. It was something that everyone was dealing with while everyone still wanted to be active and live their healthy lifestyle, so we understood that.”

Moreover, plans to update the parks were put on hold. Trey said this means things like new grills, picnic tables, and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant playground equipment will be added to the playground areas next year.

There was guidance from the St. Lawrence County Health Department during the changing guidelines in the early stages of the virus pandemic, Trey said.

“It was actually nice working with them because I thought it was going to be a lot more difficult but they kind of laid out, ‘you need to do this, you need to do that if you are opening your beaches and parks,’” he said he was advised. “And what most people don’t realize is that technically when someone was here, at the park or at the playground, if they had used a picnic table or if they went on a swing, our staff was advised to wipe that down or sanitize after every use.”

That led to an extension in hours for Trey and his staff. He said his staff would work from 8 AM to 4 PM and he would have to cover evenings to be sure safety measures were enforced if anyone came back to the park, including making sure someone was watching bathrooms so that it was being used by one person at a time, and then sanitizing it after each use.

All of that was a challenge when you are trying to get other work done in the arena or trying to make up for lost time for other plans or projects.

Reshaping Rec

So how does the pandemic and all the regulations regarding social distancing shape the Rec Department, going into the long, north country winter?

Trey said that depends on how the school shapes up during its opening weeks, including how they interact with kids sharing transportation. With Clarkson University and SUNY Potsdam not making ice time available to the community as they will not be open to the public, at least not for the remainder of 2020, that creates an opportunity for Potsdam Rec to rent out ice time that was previously undesirable.

But that doesn’t come without precaution and concern about the public usage of the arena. Trey said plans for coping with the policies for social distancing are in the process of being mapped out for youth hockey and figure skating at Pine Street Arena.

Public skating at Pine Street Arena has been postponed until at least next year in order to determine best practices for people to skate and physically distance themselves.

When junior hockey teams or the figure skating clubs use the ice it is less of a concern, Trey said, as it is scheduled, unlike when there is public skating or public events, where he has to be concerned about anybody from the public getting sick or coming in to contact with someone who might not have quarantined.

“So the issue we are really looking at is, how do we monitor, how do we record keep those individuals coming in for public times?” Trey asked. “And as for the ice schedule, I don’t believe we are going to have any public sessions, at least to start off. We can still try to schedule some adult skating, but it would have to be on a registration basis so we know who would be coming into the arena as much as possible.

“I think when we first open, and we target to open in the beginning of October, that you are going to see primary use from junior hockey and figure skating associations,” Trey added. “So we know who is coming through the doors (and) what groups and what teams are in the vicinity during each specific time.”

All the restrictions and the slow open to the public is not for the benefit of the Rec Department, Trey said. With things like potential pre-registration for open skating, it is to benefit to anyone from outside Potsdam who may travel 15-20 minutes in a bad snowstorm to find the limit of skaters allowed on the ice has been reached.

He said he doesn’t want to turn people away, so he is also considering shortening the open skating to two 30-minute sessions instead of a full hour, so the first 30 minutes a group of 20 to 30 adults could go out and then after the first 30 minutes is up a new wave of people can get out there. 

“We certainly want to make sure it is fair and just for everybody that wants to access here,” Trey said. “We will certainly have our own rules policies about masks or if it is beneficial to have gloves here and things like that, but we will certainly have certain designated areas in the arena.”

Growth and partnership despite the pandemic

But while that is being sorted out Trey and I have been talking about what we can do to create a program that takes advantage of not just the resources the arena and beaches have to offer but the natural resources in our surrounding area that can benefit adult programming. 

This is all a part of the new partnership between the Potsdam Public Library and the Potsdam Recreation Department. As I have previously mentioned, I have been looking for ways to take the library outside the library walls and get into the community, such a partnership with the Rec Department not only does that, but also advocates for active and healthier living and creates activities for adults.

The first of such programs, a pair of history and nature walks along the Red Sandstone Trail and Sugar Island in partnership with the Laurentian Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club, is being held the weekend of Oct. 10  and 11. More information on that event and the Laurentian Chapter can be found at https://www.facebook.com/events/2658283707770587/

Trey and I have also been talking about snowshoeing expeditions that would start off with a few 101 classes about snowshoeing. Those classes would likely be held on the fields behind the arena this winter and will be ironed out closer to the dates of the events. 

Currently the Rec Department has 33 pairs of snowshoes to rent for such events with sizes that range from children 60 pounds or less to adults 200 pounds and up, though the 101 classes would be free to the public with a limited class size that would require registration.

Snowshoe rentals range from free on-site usage to off-site day rental: $5/day per pair for adults, free for children; off-site day rental – group 4+: $20; and off-site weekend rentals also available, with a price to be determined.

These assets and resources have not been utilized as much as they could be, Trey said, and he has embraced the partnership with the library to help foster growth in the Rec Department as well as reaching out to the adults in the community. 

“It’s certainly just, not necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel, but to find those programs or find those partners in the community that are willing to maybe contribute coming up with a solution (to cater to the adults in our community), like maybe we have pickleball next year, working on creating revenue to generate stuff for programs like that,” Trey said. “It is something (pickleball) that I know there was a lot of discussion of before I started as director. I certainly know a few individuals who are over at the SUNY Potsdam courts early in the morning and getting their workout in and there are some really experienced players over there, too, who, if there were more courts or more opportunities to play, I think a league or something bigger could come of that.”

Currently, the Rec Department has the main posts and netting for a pickleball court. Paddles would need to be purchased, which Trey said were pretty inexpensive. It is now just a matter of where to safely create a court to protect against traffic, as it is being considered for the corner of the Pine Street Arena parking lot, near the playground, as well as figuring out the cost to create and maintain it.

“So it is really just thinking about how much money is it going to take to pave the new court and then how are we going to sustain the upkeep of that court during that time with the weather conditions in this area,” he said.

Free kayak and paddle board rentals on specific days are among some of the programs that Potsdam Rec and PPL are talking about creating for the community.

But in the meantime, Trey and I are working on programs or lessons to get community members involved to make them knowledgeable about what we have here for resources.  

“I just don’t want people to just think of this as a hockey arena,” Trey told me. “We certainly want to hear everyone’s input too, what everyone is excited about or what people want to do. What is the community going to get the most use out of because we know, yeah, it might be helpful that junior hockey and figure skating are still in here, but we are still serving the whole community and we want to be conscious of that.” 

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