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Syracuse Parks Dept. reopening community centers, summer programs, amid staff shortage

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
The playground at Onondaga Park.

Parks thrived last year as people looked to get out of their homes during the summer months of the pandemic. But parks programming in Syracuse was all but shut down. That’s changing now, but staffing is an issue.

Syracuse Parks Commissioner Julie LaFave, said they’re not at full force yet, but compared to last year, they’re leaps and bounds ahead of where they were.

“Last year, you’re coming off of a year where we only had four out of our eight pools open, and really the only programming we could do was dropped into parks, brought our mobile rec vehicle and had craft kits,” LaFave said. “We really couldn’t even do much activities with the kids. It was more, kids and families come pick up these craft kits for you to do at home.”

Parks workers made up about one-third of all city employees who were furloughed during the pandemic. Now, they’re coming back, but still the Parks Department can only offer as many activities as they have staff to run them. LaFave said it’s not a money issue. COVID restrictions have only recently loosened, and the department starts planning summer in January.

“Now you can have limits of 500 outside, well we need to have staff to be able to do that,” LaFave said.

They’ve hired enough lifeguards for seven of the city’s eight pools.

“But because we weren’t able to certify so many guards last year and this year, and because we could only do it in smaller numbers, we don’t have enough guards to offer swim lessons,” she said. “It’s not easy to come back from people being unemployed or furloughed for a year and snap your fingers and have everything back to normal.”

One of the biggest hits last year came from closing senior and community centers. Senior centers reopened last month, which means pickleball, the most popular activity, and bingo are back.

But the community centers, where kids could stop in after school, plus the summer programming, won’t be ready until the end of the month. People have to pre-register, so they’re not flooded with kids. LaFave said opening the doors to these centers will hopefully curb some of the recent spike in youth violence.

“Having the ability for kids to be focusing on other things, is a big deterrent for those other negative activities,” she said.

She also challenged her staff to come up with new ideas and bring programming to some of the smaller parks. The city bought an inflatable screen to play movies. Kayaks are coming to Hiawatha Lake, and along with pools, will be ready to use at the end of June.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.