Clark County to offer parks reservations online

Current system of calling in, showing up in person has spurred frustration

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Reserving event space at one of Clark County's parks will become easier next year, officials say, and that comes as good news to Judith Even of Ridgefield.

For years, she's been organizing the Jones family reunion at Lewisville Park, outside Battle Ground. But 2014 could become the first year when the reunion doesn't happen, at least not at Lewisville, and that's cause for frustration.

She wasn't able to reserve her preferred spot Monday, the sole day on which the county took in-person and phone reservations on a first-come, first-served basis.

After spending 2.5 hours on the phone attempting to lay claim to one of the park's shelters, only to be put on hold, she made her way down to the Clark County Operations Center to reserve a spot in person. By the time she got there, around 1 p.m., she was told the park was already booked solid.

"The whole thing is frustrating," she said. "Anything has to be better than this."

The county plans to ease some of that frustration this spring by creating an online system for reserving park space. The system would allow prospective park users to reserve a spot up to a year in advance.

It would replace the current system, which requires people to arrive in person or make a call. It's been in place for decades, well before the county chose to sever its 17-year relationship with the Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation Department last year.

It's common for people looking to reserve space for reunions, weddings and sports tournaments to stand in line for hours, hoping to strike first, snatching one of the in-demand shelters or facilities. Traditionally, reservations begin pouring in at 7 a.m.

"There's a big rush in the morning, and that's what we want to get away from," said Bill Bjerke, the county's parks manager. "We want to give people the opportunity to make reservations up to one year ahead of time."

The county has a contract with Active Network, a San Diego-based company that specializes in event management software, to host the system. The county will provide the company with a percentage of its annual proceeds in lieu of paying an up-front cost, Bjerke said. That will be around 10 percent of the cost per reservation, he said.

After a minor delay — it was planned to be operational by March 1 -- the system is expected to go live in April. When that happens, it will be accessible through www.clark.wa.gov/parks.

The system is expected to save the county money in the long run, Bjerke said, because it will reduce the number of staffed positions. That's an important goal for the county this year. Commissioners authorized splitting the parks department from the city and implementing a new operational model under the hypothesis that it would be cheaper to run.

Reservations are a significant part of the department's revenue stream. A typical reservation is around $100. Despite folks having to brave the early morning hours to make a reservation this year, the county expects the number of reservations to be between 155 and 250, Parks Facilities Coordinator Eric Christensen said.

"The phone hasn't stopped ringing," he said.

Even, who's been attending the Jones family reunion since she was a girl, said she'll try to reserve park space online for her family's 2015 reunion. She doesn't want to have a repeat of this year, when her family festivities won't take place where they have in past years.

"It's not just frustrating," she said. "It's just that you feel like you're not important as a taxpayer."