BI recreation participants double despite COVID

We are a “victim of our own success.”

That’s the phrase executive director Terry Lande used at the Bainbridge Island Metro Parks & Recreation District meeting last week.

He was responding to recreation director Mark Benishek’s report that the number of participants in district recreation programs has doubled from 480 to 900 since 2019, the last year before COVID-19. Benishek said he has never seen those types of numbers, and he was surprised. “We didn’t know what to expect with the variant out there,” he said. “Some classes sold out in minutes.”

Despite COVID, Benishek said in an interview last week that, “People are just looking to re-engage in their favorite activities. They want to have a sense of normalcy.”

The increased interest has led to a problem of not having enough instructors. “We’re hiring in every department,” he said, adding they have more cultural programs like drawing and painting that have proved to be very popular.

Lande added, “Every park district in the country wishes they had this problem.”

Benishek added that the district is blessed. “There are park departments that no longer exist because of budget cuts during the pandemic,” he said.

Responding to a public comment that the district needs to offer more swim lessons, Lande said they will try to “figure out how we can shoehorn it in.”

Benishek said if they can find more instructors they can add more classes as there are waitlists for many of them.

“We want to provide a good level of services and keep everybody safe — the community and instructors,” Benishek said, regarding social distancing. He said some instructors want to keep class sizes down, and that’s another reason for the need for more classes and more instructors. “There has been some hesitation of staff in comfort levels regarding enrollment,” he said, adding they’ve lost some staff during COVID.

As for new instructors, they don’t need to have experience teaching. The district is willing to train and educate those interested who have the desired skill set needed for the class. While people who registered increased for all ages, he said seniors were very involved as fitness classes have been postponed at the senior center.

As for the Bainbridge Recreation Center, it was reported that members were glad it was open despite the snow, and that there are now 1,275 members, up almost 100 from the previous month.

It was also reported that the district is looking at plows to put on its trucks in the future for snow removal. Also, mountain bike park and skate park designs are upcoming. It will also look at developing multiple tennis courts in February at places like Sakai, Strawberry Hill and Battle Point parks.

During public comments, it was mentioned there is a need to increase swim lessons. Those were cut back during early times of COVID. It’s now a health and safety issue as basic water safety skills on an island are not being taught, the caller said. It also was mentioned that the excellent swim and water polo teams at the older level won’t continue if kids aren’t instructed how to swim.

The board changed its sick leave policy regarding COVID. It wanted to make it’s easier for employees to be honest about reporting if they may have been around it. If employees have 40 hours or less on the books in sick leave, they can have up to two weeks more during a year as long as COVID is around.

“I appreciate the need for this,” outgoing board president Dawn Janow said, adding many people have been hired over the past six weeks due to the parks district taking over the Bainbridge Recreation Center, along with other new hires as programs are expanding, as previously mentioned.

The board decided to continue meeting online through Zoom due to the rise in the COVID omicron variant. Previously they had talked about again meeting in person by mid-January. They plan to look at it again in late February.

Meanwhile, Tom Goodlin was sworn in as commissioner Position 5.

Officers were elected: Board president — Ken DeWitt; vice chair — Jay Kinney; Treasurer — Goodlin; Secretary — Tom Swolgaard; At-large ­ Janow

Committee assignments are: Governance ­— DeWitt/Kinney; Capital Facilities — Janow/Kinney; Program — Janow; Budget and Finance — DeWitt/Goodlin; Personnel — DeWitt/Janow; Forest Management — Goodlin/Swolgaard; Sakai Site Planning — Swolgaard/Goodlin.

Board liaisons are: Trails Advisory — Swolgaard/DeWitt; Dog Advisory — Kinney/Janow; BI Parks Foundation — Janow/Kinney; Intergovernmental Work Group — Kinney/Dewitt; City of BI (new) — Janow/DeWitt; BI School District — Kinney/Goodlin

They talked about ending the Sakai committee but decided against it because of continued interest in tennis courts there. Janow thought a new city of Bainbridge Island committee would be good to try to increase communication there.