South Suburban facing cuts as shutdowns drag on

Staff furloughed without pay; district burning through reserve funds

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South Suburban Parks and Recreation is facing an uncertain future as COVID-19 shutdowns drag on.

South Suburban, which runs a vast array of indoor and outdoor recreational facilities across the south Denver metro area, shut down the vast majority of its facilities, and all clubs, sports and activities on March 17. The district's parks and trails remain open, some teeming with people as shutdowns eliminate most other recreational activities.

The district is losing about $750,000 in revenue every week its facilities are closed, said Executive Director Rob Hanna.

The district has indefinitely furloughed nearly all of its 1,400 part-time employees, Hanna said, and about half of its 241 full-time employees. The remaining skeleton crew is made up of workers deemed essential who handle facilities maintenance and administration.

Part-timers are not being paid, according to an email Hanna sent to staff, and full-time employees are instructed to use up their vacation and sick days, then apply for unemployment.

“We had to stop the bleeding,” Hanna said. “Never did we imagine we'd face a scenario like this.”

At this rate, the district will burn through its reserve cash in 60 days, Hanna said, at which point it will be time to look at cuts.

The district has taken cost-saving measures, like melting one of the two sheets of ice at the district's Ice Arena in Centennial.

It's not yet clear where cuts would come from.

“There are a lot of what-if scenarios,” Hanna said. “We're looking at every area of the organization. The hard part is, nobody knows how long this will go on.”

There are other snags. Local city and county governments are likely to see huge drops in sales tax revenue, putting cost-sharing efforts on district improvements in peril.

If bans on gatherings continue into the summer, the district may not be able to host concerts at The Hudson Gardens, meaning it wouldn't qualify for $400,000 in funding from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.

Hanna said he anticipates shutdowns and gathering restrictions will be slowly phased out, but even once they're lifted, he's not sure the public will want to gather in groups like they did before the pandemic.

“Just because the governor says we can open, I doubt we'll be back at 100% revenue,” Hanna said. “I think this will cause long-term changes in our psychology.”

Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 26, and he recently extended the order — which had been scheduled to expire April 11 — to April 26.

South Suburban construction projects, like a new recreation complex in Centennial and rebuilds on four outdoor pools, will continue for now, Hanna said, but others in the planning stages may be postponed.

Planned replacements of the Littleton Tennis Center in west Littleton and the Sports Dome at the Family Sports Center in Centennial could be pushed back.

The district is working on applying for federal relief, but federal programs are continuously evolving and staff are trying to figure out how much the district might qualify for, Hanna said.

The 2008 recession hit the district hard, Hanna said, causing years of deferred maintenance that the district has only begun to catch up with in recent years.

Hanna said he doesn't expect this shutdown or the possibility of an economic recession to have as severe an impact on the district.

“The last recession was based on deeper economic issues,” Hanna said. “If we get on top of this thing, if we bend the curve or we get a vaccine, we could bounce back quicker.”

Hanna said he's not sleeping much lately.

“If a tornado hit Goodson Rec Center, I'd know how long it would take to get things back to normal,” he said. “With this, we just don't know.”

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