An important discussion at the MVF Board’s annual Strategic Planning Retreat in May involved how we as an organization are keeping up with our residents’ needs and desires for programs and services. We all know that our community demographics have changed, and the challenge continues to be how we adapt our services and program offerings to remain relevant. We have made great strides, especially in our parks and recreation offerings, keeping on trend with other jurisdictions and utilizing best practices. We continue to expand our digital communication offerings to reach a broader audience. As our revenues continue to decline from print advertising, our challenge is to attract advertising customers to make the shift to our online opportunities. Bolstering our partnerships with local governments and non-profits will continue to be a key to our success and allows for an effective use of our resources.
As we begin preparing the 2020 MVF budget, a number of specific items that were discussed during the retreat are key in our planning.
Repurposing of Watkins Mill Pool site to benefit more residents: A major discussion concerned the repurposing of the Watkins Mill Pool site to provide for a better utilized recreation area. Every year, the aquatics staff provides detailed statistics on utilization of all seven MVF pools, and it is clear that the Watkins Mill pool, which is our smallest, is the least used pool.
We have six other larger pools with plenty of capacity and which are increasingly expensive to operate. The reality is that as we renovate existing pools, such as Whetstone and Peggy Mark pools, our expenses to operate and reserve for these pools have increased.
Therefore, the Board thought it made both programmatic and financial sense for MVF to move in a different direction with the Watkins Mill Pool and develop a plan to repurpose this site. Its location has always been a challenge, and visitors to the pool have complained about lack of privacy and noise due to the proximity of busy Watkins Mill Road, which fronts the pool site.
I have asked Director of Recreation and Parks Duncan Mullis to work with his team on preparing several plans to reimagine this site. As always, we will involve the community in the process to ensure that all ideas are considered. The plans would then move on to the Recreation Committee for consideration and then come back to the MVF Board for final action.
Converting Tennis Courts
Progress continues to be made on adapting an underutilized amenity—tennis courts. During the retreat, the Board highlighted the importance of providing programs for our youth and seniors. The proposed conversion of one tennis court at Apple Ridge Recreation Area to four pickleball courts will provide a new amenity for residents of all ages. Pickleball is growing in popularity across the nation, especially among seniors. I’m proud to say that if the Board approves the repurposing of the tennis court, we will actually be providing our residents with a great pickleball experience because these courts are designed solely for pickleball use.
The second new amenity involving repurposing a tennis court would be for a Futsal/Soccer mini-pitch at North Creek Tennis Courts. The reality is that these courts are already being used for soccer and other ball play. By adding boards around the existing tennis court and adding goals at both ends, which is a relatively minor investment, the court will be modified to allow better use for these sports. Again, MVF would be a leader in actually converting a tennis court for this use.
During the retreat, I reminded the Board that a major addition to our park inventory was still a few years off, but that the planning is well underway. As part of the golf course redevelopment, MVF was able to negotiate with Monument Realty to build a new park at the intersection of Montgomery Village Avenue and Stewartown Road extended.
This park will bring new amenities, which have been part of MVF’s long-range facility plan. A dog park, with both large and small dog areas, and a community garden with elevated plots will be special features at the new park. A large playground area, a pavilion and associated parking, as well as a network of trails, will flow through the park.
Monument is required to build the park no later than the occupancy of the 150th residential unit to be built. We are projecting this park to be completed in late 2022.
Evaluate usage of baseball fields and facilities
The Board asked about how well used the sports fields are and wondered if there was any data on how busy the baseball and softball play was. It was suggested that given the popularity of soccer and the fact that MVSA combined its baseball program with the City of Gaithersburg, we might study the need to change field configurations and the cost of doing it.
There was also discussion about how well used the volleyball court at Lake Whetstone is. Clearly the Board wants to make sure that all of our facilities are reflecting the latest in recreation trends. I have asked Duncan Mullis, as part of his department’s 2020 work plan, to collect data on field usage, which will be helpful in the Board’s consideration.
Evaluate community special events, including festivals
Several Board members spoke about increasing attendance to our annual festivals, such as July 4th, Christmas Tree lighting or the Fall Festival Pumpkin Race. There was discussion about holding an international festival to celebrate the diverse cultures in our community. As an alternative to introducing a brand new festival, staff will be bringing a proposal forward to add cultural elements to a number of our programs and events, such as showcasing music of different cultures at the summer concerts, etc.
Election Process improvements
I commented during the retreat that this year’s lack of attendance at the Candidates’ Forum was embarrassing and a waste of time and money. We had two residents in attendance who thankfully asked thoughtful questions for the candidates to respond to. The forum has never been well attended, and this year’s unfortunate showing got staff thinking about how the election process could be improved. This resonated with the Board as well.
The Board would like the Election Committee to examine how best to get the word out about the candidates and determine ways to improve the low voter turnout, even though the mail-in ballot system that MVF uses is very voter friendly.
Giving candidates the opportunity to be videoed while answering a series of questions that could be solicited from residents got positive feedback from the Board. These interviews also could be included in the Village News. In the recent past, it has been difficult to get all the candidates to attend the forum because of work schedules, family illness, etc.
There was a great deal of discussion about online voting, and staff will be evaluating the pros and cons. But realistically, staff thinks there are many challenges and considerable cost to modifying the mail-in system we have today.
HOAs and local governments across the country are struggling with how to improve voter turnout and safeguard their voting systems against cyberattacks and fraud. This is a complicated issue that many jurisdictions are struggling with, and we will continue to look for best practices to share with the Election Committee and the Board.
Several Board members—during the retreat and at other times—have voiced concern that assessments continue to increase. In reality, the MVF assessment has seen little or no increase since 2010, and we are fortunate to have undesignated surplus funds, which have helped to fund the MVF portion of the budget. The Capital Contribution funds have also been helpful to support new capital projects. The DU assessment is the bigger challenge because of the need to support renovations and operations of our aging facilities and the cost to maintain the newer ones. With the elimination of the state law that exempted recreation and entertainment employees from the county minimum wage, MVF’s payroll for all of our seasonal employees (pool staff, camp staff, etc.) will increase substantially, as the county’s minimum wage rate goes up each year.
The pressure also continues to fund both MVF and DU Reserves, for which this year we budgeted $1M of an $8.5M budget. I might note that when I started with MVF in late 2007, the approved 2008 budget included reserves of $118,000, which was well below the necessary allocation. The good news is that we are back on track and making the needed reserve payment investments to replace and refurbish MVF’s many assets into the future.
Strategic planning retreats often generate discussions about new ideas, new programs, new facilities, etc. The visioning is very helpful and sets out broad plans for the future of the organization. During the budget process, using the inputs from the retreat, staff will do its best to develop revenue and expenditure plans that reflect the changing needs of our community and the Board’s priorities.
As a reminder, the staff will submit the draft 2020 budget to the Audit Committee in early August. They will meet and make a recommendation to the Board on approving the draft budget for publication in the Village News and on the MVF website. The draft budget will be vetted by the Board at their August 22 meeting, and the next steps include publication of the draft budget in the Village News and online for 30 days so that resident input can be received. During the September 26 meeting, residents are encouraged to submit testimony during Residents Time about both revenues, such as the assessment levels and expenditures, both operating and capital. The Board will take action on the budget during its October 24 meeting so that assessment notices can be prepared and sent out in November.