After high school, in 2011, Michael Patton began his college career at Brigham Young University-Idaho. Following his first completed year, he began a church mission in Mexico City, Mexico, and was there until 2013. He returned to Brigham Young University-Idaho and began considering his career options, including recreation management – since he had always been intrigued by the various sports and programs cities offered.
Originally from California, Patton had a brother who was studying for the same degree and is currently in an internship. He earned $15 an hour by going to parks and taking notes each day.
“When $8 an hour was the norm, I figured I could do that,” Patton explained. “I quickly learned it was more than just sipping on lemonade in the sunshine all day, but nevertheless I got my degree in recreation management.”
Unable to find a job in southeast Idaho, Patton decided to take classes at Idaho State University and earn a second degree in public communication while he searched. In order to bolster his resume, he also began working with the nonprofit Southeast Idaho Council of Governments. While there, he helped cities acquire funding through the state for projects such as roads, downtown revitalization, sewers, playgrounds and sports courts. He gained a lot of experience working on construction management and grant writing.
However, his goal was still to enter the world of parks and recreation. While searching, Patton came across Ephraim City, Utah, which was searching for a recreation director. He was hired on because of his nonprofit grant writing work. He began his career four years ago, overseeing all programming and events.
Once COVID-19 hit, his primary concern became figuring out the best way to do his job while also dealing with the new restrictions. However, since Ephraim City leans politically conservative and is extremely rural, many of the restrictions were not as strict as in the large cities. While parks department programming was initially shut down, things began restarting slowly in June 2020.
One of the city’s largest annual events is the Scandinavian Heritage Festival. While it had to be canceled in 2020, Patton wanted to see it return on Memorial Day weekend in 2021. This festival was the first major event in all of Utah to come back after COVID-19, and since so many people wanted to get out of the house, there was a record attendance. Following the festival, cities big and small throughout Utah called Patton to learn how the city managed to reinstate the festival and how to do it safely.
Before Patton took over the recreation director position, the department had been primarily concerned with youth sports: Programming revolved around a different sports routine each season. His goal is to continue to expand the programming to be more inclusive and offer recreational possibilities for everyone.
Since no major projects were initiated during his first year in the position, Patton dedicated his time to figuring out what the residents and community wanted and how to make that happen.
“The COVID-19 years were a lot of time spent in planning and development, doing community input surveys, and so on. So, when things opened up more, we were ready to strike,” Patton said.
During this planning stage, the department worked out conceptual designs, financial strategies and maintenance plans. Patton also worked up a five-year plan for staffing, programming, events, park infrastructure and objectives to get there. The plan took approximately six months to develop and included developing more trails for the community accessible to all people.
This initial five-year period is nearly complete. Patton is outlining the next five-year plan, which he will introduce next year.
In his time as recreation director, he has already managed to get over $1 million in funding for parks buildings and infrastructure. The goal is to use as few tax dollars as possible to fund the recreation projects; therefore, Ephraim City took advantage of a recreation, arts and parks tax that Utah allows to be charged. For every $10 spent on retail, one penny goes to the city’s recreation department.
The tax has helped to fund infrastructure projects. It has also allowed the city to use it as a match to receive other funding.
In 2022, the primary recreation project was building an all-abilities playground. This year, the focus is on building a skate park. Upcoming projects include building a disc golf course and laying more than 10,000 multi-use trails up the mountains.
In regard to the trails, the goal is to make them as inclusive and accessible as possible, Patton said. “The saying is that Grandma should be able to ride these trails in a wheelchair with a bowl of chili in her lap and be perfectly fine,” he laughed. The city’s first farmer’s market also opened this year.
The recreation department has expanded from just youth sports to 30 various programs available. There has been a focus on including programming for seniors, adults and toddlers as well as English as a Second Language classes. There is also now a youth sports scholarship program for youth in low-income housing, funded by local businesses.
A sports equipment program is available where youth in low-income housing can borrow donated used sports equipment for free. One in five families in Ephraim City lives below the poverty line, so it is important for the recreation department to ensure the programs are affordable and available to everyone.
Staffing was able to be increased so that Patton could hire an event coordinator to plan one event a month. These have included a Christmas parade in December and a Halloween event in October.
Last year a brand-new event, a Christmas tree bonfire, was started in cooperation with the public works department. Residents were encouraged to drop the trees off at one park and then come together to enjoy a bonfire. The idea was noticed by the state of Utah and highlighted as a unique event. This year the Christmas tree bonfire will return and be paired with the city’s polar plunge as part of a fire and ice festival.
Another new project has been the revitalization of a community center. The city owns a senior center that was run for years by a nonprofit group of seniors, but when the pandemic began, the group lost interest in running it. Funding was generated to renovate, rebrand and rename the center, which will focus on bringing back senior programming.
“Another big project on the horizon is a brand-new sports complex,” Patton said. “We have a junior college and, when it was small, we joined forces and built a sports complex for the college to use. Fast forward to today, and both the college and city have grown: There’s not a lot of space to accommodate both user groups.” The goal is for the city to build its own and leave the current complex to the college.
A 50-acre recreation space is also on the horizon. However, in order to use as few tax dollars as possible, the project will take place in phases. Phase One will be the development of 10 acres with green space for soccer, pickleball courts, a playground, walking trails and a parking lot. Phase Two will include baseballs and softball fields with walking paths around the entire 50 acres. Currently, Patton is working on receiving the necessary funding to begin that project. “The National Recreation and Park Association has a recommendation on how much recreation space a city should have per capita and Ephraim City is way below that recommendation,” he noted. “In order to fix that, the recreation department is focused on getting any city-owned space that is not developed and calling dibs on it.”