Recreation: Old wine, new bottle

Mammoth bigwigs make stride toward new entity

Eastern Sierra recreation leaders made their first tentative steps toward establishing a new recreation governmental entity—Mammoth Lakes Recreation—this past week.

A 32-member recreation “steering committee” gathered for the first of three meetings on Monday, July 22, with an aim toward getting a grip on the “state of Mammoth Lakes Recreation.”

Facilitating the gathering were members of the North Lake Tahoe-based Strategic Marketing Group, which helped Mammoth create its RecStrats document several years ago.

“You are at a unique moment in time,” said Carl Ribaudo of the research company.

“In five or 10 years from now, will you be able to look back and say we made some great decisions, or not.”

“Moving forward, the future is yours.”

At first glance, Monday’s meeting looked much like other similar meetings in the past, in which interest groups, user groups, politicians and members of the town staff have gathered to see if there is a way toward forming a unified effort.

This one was different, though.

The end game of this effort would be to form a non-governmental organization—an NGO—to handle all things relating to recreation here.

Unlike in years past, there now are models for such an NGO, the primary example being Mammoth Lakes Tourism, a nonprofit that works alongside the town to provide marketing for Mammoth’s lifeblood industry.

Also acting as non-governmental models are the Eastern Sierra Transit Authority (ESTA), an NGO that handles transit, and Mammoth Lakes Housing—another NGO that acts as a nonprofit on behalf of the town.

The formation of Mammoth Lakes Recreation, which has been pushed hard by Mayor Rick Wood, therefore would be the fourth such NGO in Mammoth, effectively replacing the town’s recreation department altogether.

Its tasks would include the management of Mammoth’s current recreation assets, such as Whitmore Pool, the ball fields, the track, kids’ programs and adult leagues such as softball.

What makes this effort different from past efforts, however, are Measure R and Measure U tax monies, both of which guarantee a steady stream of revenue aimed directly at supporting recreation (Measure R), as well as arts and culture, transit and housing (Measure U).

Going into the meeting, town officials played it on the safe side.

“The Recreation Department is eager to participate in a public discussion with all local recreation user groups on how the town can effectively and efficiently enhance recreation in Mammoth Lakes,” said recreation manager Stuart Brown in a news release.

“The Town is supportive of a process that is about the community, is for the community, and has the best interest of the recreation community in mind.”

Town Manager Marianna Marysheva-Martinez, who did not attend Monday’s meeting, also played it safe in prepared remarks issued before the confab.

“The facilitation of the MLR process is a natural extension of the town’s desire to place a high priority on recreation as both a quality of life opportunity and an important economic development strategy,” she said.

Wood, however, made no effort to dampen his enthusiasm for the formation of MLR.

“We have successfully, in my opinion, outsourced transit, tourism, housing and it’s now time to outsource recreation for [a number of] reasons,” he said in an interview in June.

“One is that I think that, with the exception of municipal recreation, which I think towns should do, just as we should fill potholes, we should outsource recreation management to an entity that can do it less expensively.

“Two, and under Town Council direction, we need to figure out how to properly spend Measures R and U funds.

“Third, and maybe most importantly, we need to provide the link between what we have to market, and marketing itself.

“In the end, you can do all the marketing you want, but you’d better have something here. You’d better have a product, and the product is typically in recreation. That could include special events, but you have to give people a reason to come here, so I don’t think we’ve done that well enough, and I think the opportunity to outsource that, and put it into a nonprofit organization, is a terrific idea.”

John Urdi, the chief of Mammoth Lakes Tourism, identified three main sectors in Mammoth’s recreation matrix: recreation relating to municipal and local efforts; recreation relating to the visitor experience, whether that’s trails, cross country skiing, alpine skiing, snowmobiling, fishing, etc.; and recreation aimed toward elite athletes, such as those athletes occupying Mammoth’s High Altitude Crib at Snowcreek this summer.

(There are only 10 vacant days in the crib this summer, Urdi said, with other days being taken up by cyclists, runners and other athletes who are in town training for one event or another.)

The obstacle in creating a unified effort is one with which Mammothites can identify after years of struggle.

“We never quite complete our plans,” said recreation commissioner Teri Stehlik, “because of distractions, economic facts such as a lack of funding, and a lack of cooperation among user groups—those kinds of things.”

Town council member Jo Bacon put it in more succinct terms.

“We don’t know how to get there.”

John Armstrong, a longtime Mammoth Mountain Ski Area instructor and executive, tried to capture the essence of Mammoth’s ages-old dilemma by asserting there was “a lack of confidence” that permeates the town when it comes to forming a unified recreational effort.

Monday’s steering committee resembled a Who’s Who of recreation leaders, representing the U.S. Forest Service, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, Eastside Velo, Mammoth Lakes Tourism, the Mammoth Community Foundation, Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra, the Friends of the Inyo, MLTPA, Mammoth Unified School District, the Eastern Sierra Interpretive Association, AYSO, the Snowcreek Athletic Club, the town’s Recreation Commission, Planning Commission and Town Council, along with the Mammoth Lakes Foundation and members of the public.

Ribaudo opened the meeting by stating what is clearly in front of everyone’s eyes.

“You are coming out of a brutal recession that traumatized a lot of resort communities.

“You have had a ton of challenges, but there are a lot of opportunities ahead of you.”

Two more meetings are on tap before the steering committee gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the Town Council on the idea.

The next one is Monday, Aug. 5, and the third and final meeting is on Monday, Aug. 19.

Both meetings will be in Suite Z of the Town Offices, on the second floor at the Minaret Mall.