From a financial and fun perspective, Wellesley’s Recreation Department considers this past summer at Morses Pond beach a success. But whether the town next year will operate the beach in a similar manner—a reservation-based, residents-only system borne from the pandemic—remains to be seen, as a soul-searching discussion at the Sept. 24 Recreation Commission meeting revealed (view Wellesley Media recording).
The overall Rec Dept. summer season was “way more successful than 2020,” according to Director Matt Chin, whose preliminary revenue numbers showed a $40K increase from a year ago when the COVID-19 pandemic hit programming plans and operations harder. Rec offered more programs, including camp (which isn’t even included in that preliminary revenue assessment and would mean an even bigger boost).
Even though Rec has pulled in more revenue via more programs before the pandemic, it also was less profitable because, for example, running the beach meant hiring lifeguards and additional staff beyond what it has hired the past 2 seasons.
The town logged beach reservations for more than 40,000 this past summer (based on number of people who those making reservations said would be coming). Not all those people actually came, but Chin says there were still a good 10,000 more beach visitors from a year ago, and few got shut out, even if they made reservations the day of upon discovering it was a nice beach day. Rec worked with the Health Dept. to allow up to 500 people, half its capacity, on the beach, though rarely came close to such a crowd.
Having heard all this, Recreation Commission member Jim Rodrigue asked about what the big takeaways have been, and what from this way of operating should stay or go. He also said later that “I appreciate the financial perspective on this, but it’s very challenging for me to imagine not having lifeguards in a non-pandemic set of circumstances.” It may just be a matter of accepting there’s a cost for having lifeguards and providing a safety service, he said.
Running the beach has piled up losses in the tens of thousands in years past.
Commissioner Laurance Stuntz wondered if there might be a way to offer a combination of enhanced safety and freedom at the beach, perhaps guarding a smaller area for those who want that service.
And Paul Cramer sought opinions on whether it ever might make sense to go back to the docks and lifeguards model if it’s going to inevitably result in running at a significant deficit. “People go all over the state, they go to the Cape… they go to the Vineyard…they swim, there are no lifeguards…,” he said. ”
Chin said residents like the residents-only restriction, and Jenn Lawlor said patrons enjoyed having fewer rules, such as those regarding floatation devices. Some wished the docks were there, though there were very few complaints, and patrons liked that the restrooms were available this summer, Lawlor said.
For Rec, managing the beach is easier with just park rangers, Chin said. “However, just on a personal level, I feel like we need lifeguards out there to protect people… I struggle with that,” he added.
While CARES Act funding helped the financial results for the beach, Chin said he thinks the operation might be profitable if it were resident-only and a fee was charged for parking even without such aid in future. He said the department could review a few scenarios with various dock and lifeguard configurations. The department plans to run lifeguard classes, so could manufacture its own lifeguard staff.
Depending on how funding goes for ideas laid out in a study on Morses Pond’s future, which could result in a new bath house and beach configuration, that new configuration could potentially allow for a revenue model that would support a return to lifeguards, Chin said.
The study continues to be carried out, with wetlands and other investigations underway to ensure there’s nothing in the way of building and reconfiguring things at the Morses Pond beach area. If all goes according to plan, which has been delayed by competing projects and limited town capacity, Rec would seek design funds at Town Meeting in 2023 and building funds the following year, Chin said.
The next Rec Commission meeting, which will be held remotely and includes a director’s report item called “Morses Pond summer 2022,” is scheduled for 8-9:30am on Oct. 29.