April 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA2

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Rural Recreation in Illinois: The Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project

This explains how comprehensive summer recreation programs may be introduced into small rural communities. Property tax revenue in small rural communities does not appear to be a viable source of funding for summer recreation programs. While some city funds may be available, this article indicates that there are other multiple sources of possible funding. One of the key components of the Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project is the professional training and the professionalism of the recreation directors who are students in the recreation curricula of several state universities. Professional direction and citizen support contribute to the success of such programs.

Jim Brademas
Associate Professor and Project Director
Department of Leisure Studies
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Illinois
Urbana-Champaign, Illinois
Internet address: brademas@uiuc.edu

John Weber
Assistant Professor and Program Manager
Department of Leisure Studies
Eastern Illinois University
Charleston, Illinois


The State of Illinois enjoys a reputation for providing top quality park and recreation services on the local level. Such services are provided primarily by special districts called park districts, which are autonomous units of local government governed by elected boards with their own taxing and bonding powers and separate from other forms of local government. Park district boards of commissioners are concerned solely with providing park and recreation services to their citizens without being encumbered with financing police, fire, health, and other services, which are the responsibility of city governments.

Currently there are over 300 park districts in Illinois with 2,000 elected commissioners. In addition, there are some 2,000 professionals serving as directors, superintendents, supervisors, and leaders operating a myriad of recreation programs. Because these districts are financed primarily with local property tax funds, as well as fees and charges, districts must have a substantial tax base upon which to rely. Very few park districts are found in small towns or rural areas simply because the tax base is not there to finance operations.

Residents in urban areas in Illinois have benefited for years from year-round comprehensive recreation programs directed toward all age groups. In rural areas, however, there is, in addition to financial constraints, a lack of coordination of resources and professional leadership for the provision of general recreation resources.

The Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project

The Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project (IRRDP) was established by the Office of Recreation and Tourism Development (ORTD) in the Department of Leisure Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The ORTD is the principal link among the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, the Department of Leisure Studies, and the public in the area of leisure services. The primary goal of the ORTD is to provide park and recreation-related research, education, and service programs that enhance the provision of leisure services to all citizens in Illinois. Since the introduction of the project in 1995, thirteen different cities have participated.

Mission of Rural Recreation Development Project

The Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project is designed to assist rural communities develop their recreation potential. The mission is to address the immediate unmet need for comprehensive summer recreation programs leading to long-term development for recreation services. The project is patterned after similar efforts by the University of Colorado and by Clemson University.

Objectives of the Project

Some of the objectives of the project include:

  • To help rural Illinois communities meet immediate recreation needs and plan for long-term recreation development.
  • To open new opportunities for philanthropy among local business and community groups.
  • To provide significant opportunities for volunteer experience to citizens of all ages.
  • To provide work and career development assistance to local community youth interested in the recreation field.
  • To provide educational experiences to university students receiving degrees in recreation.
  • To find the most effective ways to deliver recreation services to rural communities.

Community Criteria for Participation

One of the goals of the project is to have cities accept full responsibility for conducting their programs without financial assistance from the university. Since the inception of the program in 1995, three cities are now operating on their own.

The basic criteria for participation in the project includes:

  • Local approval by the city council
  • The establishment of a citizen's recreation advisory committee.
  • General liability insurance for staff and participants.
  • Acceptable furnished housing for the recreation director for 11 weeks.
  • Adequate office facilities, including telephone, word processor and fax.
  • A cash contribution.
  • Approval to conduct needs assessment surveys.


Summer recreation directors are recruited from the several universities in Illinois offing recreation curricula. The education, experience, and dedication these students bring to the program are major factors in the success of the project. Based on anticipated registration, an average of three youth between the ages of 14 and 17 are recruited from each town. They are trained on the University of Illinois campus for four days as youth recreation leaders and are required to work a minimum of fifteen hours each week for a modest honorarium. The summer recreation program would not be successful without the enthusiasm and dedication of these young people.

Community Programs

A major component of the project is the Summer Daze Youth Program. Programs are offered three mornings each week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for children 6 to 13 years of age. Each week is highlighted with a theme: Circus, Earth, Independence, Wacky Water, Food Fun, Fitness and Safety, Nature, Western, and Community Pride. Daily activities include arts and crafts, sports, and games. Special activities include field trips, hiking, swimming, visits to nursing homes, trips to theme parks, and professional baseball games scheduled for afternoons and evenings. Afternoon activities are open to children of all ages.

Evening activities include overnight camping, potluck dinners, ice cream socials, and street dances. One special activity was the introduction of professional artists who conducted programs on puppetry, storytelling, music and dance. The artists were funded through a grant provided by the Illinois Arts Council. The registration cost for the entire eight week program is a modest $10 to $40. Special events are funded on a break-even cost basis.


Citizen's Recreation Advisory Committees

Each city is required to form a citizen's recreation advisory committee to monitor the progress of the program and advise the recreation director on the availability of local facilities, civic clubs, current programs, and volunteers. One member of the committee is charged with the responsibility of monitoring all revenue and expenditures.

Over the past three summers, a total of 107 different individuals have served on the committees. The makeup of the committees includes bankers, teachers, insurance agents, ministers, secretaries, social workers, homemakers, travel agents, salespeople, coaches, school principals, farmers, newspaper editors and reporters, and representatives of other walks of life.

The diversity of partnerships generated through the rural recreation program has been impressive in every small community. Over 100 different civic clubs, agencies, businesses, and public departments such as police, fire, street, and water, and individuals have contributed time, money, services, and products to the program.

One of the early obligations of the citizen's committee is to prepare a recreation assessment prior to the beginning of the program. The assessment includes the following:

Community Background: Names of city council members; names, professions, addresses and phone numbers of all members of the citizen's advisory committee; names and phone numbers of potential volunteers and the skills they have to contribute to the program; names, addresses and phone numbers of all forms of media serving the city; names of all community organizations, associations, and committees that might be helpful to the program.

Recreation Facility and Program Inventory: This section lists the recreation facilities available including: community buildings, passive outdoor areas, active recreation areas, special natural and historical sites, and man-made attractions. Also listed are any recreation activities or programs already in existence such as library and church programs, Little League, 4th of July celebrations, festivals, and county fairs. The intention of the rural recreation program is to not duplicate existing programs. Indeed, directors have been asked to lend their expertise in assisting in these local activities.

Community Recreation Needs and Interests: The final part of the assessment asks for a statement of the community's recreation needs and interests.

This assessment is shared with the recreation director, who studies the assessment before moving to their towns where they spend nine days before the program begins. During this period, the director becomes familiar with the total environment of the community and begins to bond with the three youth recreation leaders who have been selected by the citizen's committee to assist the director during the summer. At the conclusion of this period, the youth leaders come to the campus of the University of Illinois for four days of training led by the recreation directors.

External Partnerships

External funding of the Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project is critical to its success. Cities range from 980 to 4,400 and do not have sufficient resources to fund the entire program. Each city makes a modest cash contribution and provides housing for the recreation director. External partnerships for funding have been made with a number of different entities. Over the four summers (including 1998) funding has been received from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, University of Illinois Provost, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Governor's Rural Affairs Council, the Cooperative Extension Service, College of Applied Life Studies, Carle Center for Rural Health and Safety, Illinois Association of Park Districts, Illinois Park and Recreation Association, the AT&T Corporation, and the Illinois Arts Council.

Why The Partnerships Work

Virtually everything related to the rural recreation program is based on partnerships built on mutual trust, respect, and, most of all, on performance. The concepts of trust and respect on the part of the city councils, which must approve the program by formal vote, residents, businesses, civic clubs, and foundations is due primarily to the prestige of the University of Illinois, the Cooperative Extension Service, and the Department of Leisure Studies.

Among the many testimonials received on the program from partners, perhaps the most eloquent was the following from Mayor Rex Peterson of Momence, Illinois to Jim Brademas.

"I wanted to personally write and tell you that our Recreation Director has been an outstanding addition to our community. She has been well received by our residents, parents and children. Her organizational skills are exceptional and her enthusiasm is contagious. She has published a newsletter and brought the program to the attention of the public in virtually any way you can think of. She has appeared and made reports to the city council that were informative and very professional. We never asked if she was supposed to be graded on the program, and if she is, I can personally tell you that she deserves an A+. She has done an outstanding job. The fact that the University of Illinois has programs that teach young people like her to perform so well, speaks highly of you and your program. Thank you again for permitting this exceptional young lady to work with us this summer."

It is in the conduct of the program and the performance of the recreation directors and youth recreation leaders that establishes the project for the future in every city in which there has been programs.

Research Conducted

Community surveys have been conducted each year (1995, 1996, 1997) to measure residents' satisfaction with the Summer Daze Youth Program, recreation awareness, and satisfaction with seven elements of community life. The seven elements of community life included physical surroundings, leisure opportunities, economic conditions, educational opportunities, social opportunities, government and public services, and medical facilities.

The surveys were randomly distributed systematically to the households of each community by the recreation directors and youth leaders using the drop-off, pick-up method. Return rates in each community varied from a low of 14% to a high of 94%. The overall return rate for each year was 45% - 47%.

One of the most interesting results, consistent each year, was related to recreation awareness. Six separate questions were asked to measure awareness. The six questions measured the respondents' agreement or disagreement regarding how beneficial recreation programs are to the household and respondent, if there are sufficient recreation opportunities available in the community, if recreation programs bring a community closer together, if recreation improves the quality of life in the community, if more money should be spent on recreation in the community, and if the community should hire a full-time recreation director.

In all communities the survey results indicated that the respondents strongly agreed that recreation programs were very beneficial to their household and themselves, that there were not sufficient recreation opportunities available in their community, that recreation programs bring a community closer together and improves the quality of life in the community, that more money should be spent on recreation in the community, and that the community should hire a full-time recreation director.

However, when the crucial question was asked "Would you be willing to pay a modest increase in property taxes to fund recreation programs in your community?" the results were almost evenly split. The results indicate that although the respondents are very much aware of the benefits of recreation programs to themselves, the community, and the overall quality of life, they are not as willing to fund recreation programs through the conventional method of property taxes.

These results, in conjunction with how the different communities fund their cash contribution to the project, indicate a variety of funding sources should be explored in financing recreation programs. Communities that participated in the 1997 Project were required to contribute $4,500 in cash and provide adequate furnished housing for the Recreation Director. Cash contributions came from a variety of sources. In one community the city council approved the entire amount from the general revenue fund. In other communities a variety of funding sources were used, including civic organizations such as the Lions club, local business associations, church associations, and private citizen donations.

Through the experience of the Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project, and based on the community surveys and related factors, it is unlikely that a small rural community would support the funding of a full-time recreation director through traditional methods. Additionally, it is very unlikely that non-traditional methods would be adequate to support a year round comprehensive recreation department. However, it has been proven that through non-traditional funding sources a comprehensive summer recreation program can be supported. This would lead to a logical conclusion that non-traditional funding for selected programs on a seasonal basis could realistically be developed.

Yet funding is not the sole consideration in the development of recreation programs in rural communities. One of the key components of the Illinois Rural Recreation Development Project is the professional training and professionalism of the recreation directors. The IRRDP has never assumed that there were no recreation opportunities in a rural community. The IRRDP model is based on the belief that, although there are recreation opportunities available, the opportunities are not coordinated nor are they comprehensive in scope. So the key to developing comprehensive recreation programs in rural communities is not so much the lack of funding sources as it is the leadership to develop and coordinate the recreation resources in the community.

The Future

A consortium of the eight universities in the State of Illinois, that offer recreation curricula, has been formed to expand the project statewide. The basic idea is to have all eight universities program in small towns in their respective geographical areas. A project of such magnitude depends on substantial external funding. While efforts are being made to secure funding, the future of the project remains in doubt.