In the mid-1990s, Bluffton's parks department generally consisted of maintenance personnel for mowing and cleaning, a seasonal pool manager and a summer activities director who oversaw arts and crafts, swim lessons, cross country, gymnastics and tennis.
Now the department offers more than 100 activities during the summer and another 100 the remainder of the year in a city of about 9,800.
Parks Superintendent Pam Vanderkolk said Bluffton and other cities these days want to go beyond keeping people in shape. They want activities to enrich peoples' lives.
In Bluffton, that could be the Rock Steady boxing program to help people with Parkinson's disease. In New Haven, there's a Mother-Son Nerf War. In Fort Wayne, the upcoming Promenade Park on the south bank of the St. Marys River is garnering area-wide attention.
“It's what our citizens are asking for – getting them outside and away from the electronics,” said Steve McDaniel, director of the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department.
Grady Shaner drives about 55 miles from St. Marys, Ohio, to Bluffton three days a week to participate in Rock Steady Boxing.
Shaner and others battle Parkinson's through an intense boxing training program that focuses on strength, balance, speed and flexibility.
“If you had told me two years ago I was going to exercise, I would have told you you're nuts,” said Shaner, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's about two years ago. “They work us hard. I leave there sweating like a horse.”
Shaner said his condition has improved slightly over what it was two years ago.
The program has 25 to 28 boxers from all over Wells and Adams counties, Vanderkolk said.
Other popular activities in Bluffton are several running/walking events that include the Chicks Run, a women's only 5K; Chilly Chilli Run; and Running Rogue, an “Amazing Race” type of event that takes participants through Bluffton's parks.
There's also a foam party that lets kids play in a cloud of bubbles, drawing about 450 people, and a Mud Fest that celebrates “all things muddy.”
“We try very hard to accommodate all ages,” Vanderkolk said. “We try to partner with our entities, our businesses, make it affordable.”
Anna Gurney, New Haven-Adams Township recreation director, said parks departments enriching peoples' lives “is kind of a national movement.”
“Over the last several generations, people are getting more sedentary,” said Gurney, who started 15 years ago as a full-time recreation director.
New Haven parks have offered year-round programs the last 15 years in a city of about 15,700.
Prior to that, they offered only summer programs, Gurney said.
She also manages a fitness center inside New Haven's new Community Center, a nature center and youth outdoor recreation programs.
Gurney credited Angela Daniel, youth activities director, with starting a Mother-Son Nerf War involving Nerf guns and a daddy-daughter dance. Both are in their second year.
Bluffton and Fort Wayne also have similar dances involving fathers and daughters.
All three cities have popular music concerts.
This summer will see the second annual Music, Market and Munchies at New Haven's Schnelker Park on Wednesdays, from July 10 through July 31.
The first event will feature the Junk Yard Band, Gurney said.
In Bluffton, this is the 28th year for the Kehoe Park Concert series beginning this month that will feature rock, big band and swing music.
Fort Wayne, of course, has the Foellinger Concert Series at Foellinger Outdoor Theater.
There are 86 parks in the area's largest city with about 260,000 residents. The 87th, Promenade Park, will open in early August as part of Fort Wayne's riverfront development.
The grand opening will feature a floating band performance, community art projects, lighted boat parade, butterfly release and boat rides.
The total project cost for the first phase of downtown riverfront development is about $20 million. At least $1.25 million of that came from donors who received naming rights for various parts of the venue.
The Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation Department provides more than 1,500 programs for all age groups, including Franke Park Day Camp and other popular youth activities, the Senior Games for people ages 50 and older and many events at Salomon Farm Park on Dupont Road.
Vanderkolk and McDaniel said parks directors often bounce ideas of each other.
“We're not shy about sharing our ideas and stealing other cities' ideas,” McDaniel said.