Summer is so close that kids can probably taste it.
Once those final report cards are handed out, the starting gun goes off in young minds across the country. In St. Louis, Mo., 67,000 young people will sprint to sports and arts summer camps, day camps, public swimming pools, parks and festivals in pursuit of competition, fun or a creative release.
According to the Trust for Public Land, public playground and park use increased 30 percent by families with children, during the recession. St. Louis was able to make that instinct even more attractive by offering several summertime programs free of charge to its residents, a policy that was in place several years before Director Denise Hill joined the St. Louis Playtime Recreation Department in 2009. One percent of property tax revenue funnels to the parks and recreation departments, which use the funds for playtime uses to sponsor a few year-round sports teams — including adult volleyball — and contract with local groups to lead summer programming as well as winter homework help sessions.
Funding levels currently permit only St. Louis city residents to participate in the Playtime Recreation Department’s community center sports and theater and poetry class programming, Hill said. But other points of interest in the Gateway to the West also feature $0 admission charge and special summer programming.
In January, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission released the results of a comparison between the metropolis and four other municipal destinations in regard to how many of four top tourist attractions charged admission. St. Louis’ free general admission to the Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis Art Museum and the city zoo bested Kansas City, New York City, Chicago and 18 other municipal destinations, and leaves money in residents’ and visitors’ pockets to spend on food, lodging and other activities.
Some for-profit entities, like the major league St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, in addition to paid admission events, offer opportunities that are free or low-cost. The Cards, for instance, sponsor a baseball league for underprivileged St. Louis-area children.
But kids aren’t the only ones looking for summer fun. Lifelong athletes of all ages can find pick-up teams or semi-serious athletic groups by checking out a helpful local website, stlouis.sportsvite.com/.
Distinct from the Playtime Recreation Department in St. Louis is a Parks Department that maintains 105 parks where summer concerts, picnics and ball games happen in view of those who come to roller blade, swim in the lake or walk their dogs.
Hundreds of special events that take place in the Gateway to the Midwest are also free to both residents and visitors. And most of those events happen thanks to one key city department, the Office of Special Events.
Mayor Francis Slay created the OSE in 2007, during his second term in office.
Coordinator Ann Chance explained that the OSE doesn’t sponsor events; rather, it exists to facilitate the myriad of events that are carried out by civic groups, churches and organizations in the city’s parks and on the city’s streets. Parades, marathons, fairs, festivals, firework shows, religious processions, gatherings around the national St. Louis arch park and parades to celebrate the St. Louis Cardinals’ World Series win are only a few of the dozens of events she works on simultaneously.
“We work with the event producers, both individuals and groups, profit and nonprofit, whether they’re from here or they come into town and want to hold something. I work with them to get all the permits they need,” she said.
The office sits down and goes over a checklist with event organizers. Are they going to hold the event in a park? Then a park permit is needed. Will they sell food? Then a food service permit is needed. Will they cook the food with gas? Then additional permits are needed.
The two coordinate with every other city department involved — most often the police and street departments — so that each individual event organizer doesn’t have to. The result is that event planning is streamlined, and participants needn’t worry about the potential complications. Sometimes, having a central clearinghouse for potentially conflicting events is almost a stroke of genius — like when the city’s two St. Patrick’s Day parades, an NCAA wrestling championship, a volleyball qualifying tournament and a surprise visit from Occupiers fell on the same day, and on the same street. In like form, a national NRA convention, the St. Louis marathon and opening weekend for Cards’ baseball kept them hopping prior to the April 13-15 weekend.
Other free or partially free events coordinated by the office include an annual blues festival, a Mardi Gras celebration and the largest Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation walk in the country.
“I’m a multitasker, thank God,” Chance said. “To do this, you’ve got to hit the ground running and not get stressed.”
By JODI MAGALLANES