Should Cities Operate Water Parks and Rec Centers?
Hazelwood, a suburb of St. Louis, has just opened a new water park. The Suburban Journals has the story. The park continues a long trend of municipalities operating substantial recreation centers, with swimming, exercise equipment, basketball courts, meeting rooms, indoor rinks, etc. To name just a few in the St. Louis area, there is The Heights in Richmond Heights, The Center of Clayton, The Pointe at Ballwin Commons, and so on. My family belongs to, and we frequently use, University City’s Centennial Commons. But let’s step back a moment and ask whether this is something governments should be doing.
To some extent, clearly yes. Outside of a few radical libertarians (a category that does not include me) just about everyone believes government should provide parks. Public swimming pools are an obvious part of a park system. But what about exercise equipment? Private gyms are certainly able to meet the needs of people wanting to work out, and putting together a fitness facility at one’s home is not that tough or expensive, assuming you go with a Rocky IV–style training regimen and skip the Ivan Drago excesses.
I generally believe that government should not provide services that the private sector is able to provide. Parks and swimming pools are things everyone should be able to enjoy, and not everyone can get to what the private sector provides in those areas and join a country club. But its not like these new rec facilities are free. You pay for them with your taxes, and then you pay for the membership. At least at Bally’s, you only pay for the membership. So while I will be enthusiastically using the University City fitness facility tonight, I admit I am somewhat torn about it. The private sector can, and did, give me a fine option with Wellbridge, before Centennial Commons opened. What’s worse is that the taxpayer-subsidized facilities are competing with private gyms and clubs, and that is hard to argue for. Competition is great, but not when one entity is supported by tax dollars.
These facilities are an obvious example of Tiebout’s theories of municipal competition at work, which is a good thing, albeit an expensive one. People can choose to live in a city with higher taxes that provides extra services like a recreation complex, or they can choose to live elsewhere, like unincorporated St. Louis County, which is closing some of its rec centers and pools as attendance declines — largely because cities are opening up their own new facilities as part of increased annexations.
So, like many a good blog post, this one ends with no conclusions. I do think many of the new rec centers are excessive, but I love Centennial Commons. So, hey, that’s why we have a comments section now!