Horry County Council will consider hiring a private company to manage the county’s recreation centers.
Earlier this year, county officials discussed privatizing all of their recreation programs as a remedy for a budget shortfall. However, council members opted to increase business license fees to shore up the recreation account instead.
Despite the council’s budgeting decision this year, the idea of privatization hasn’t been abandoned and council members often mention it as a possible long-term solution for maintaining recreation services. Those conversations led to Tuesday’s discussion at the council’s infrastructure and regulation committee meeting. The focus was hiring a firm to run some or all of the county’s recreation centers on the North Strand, South Strand and in Carolina Forest. The county would retain ownership of the buildings, but the upkeep and programs would be the responsibility of the tenant.
“The reason we talked about doing this is because we couldn’t afford to do parks and recreation like we’ve been doing,” said councilman Johnny Vaught, adding that any private company hired for the project must provide at least the same level of service the county already offers. “Whoever proposes to take over this and run it, if they’re not proposing to do exactly the same thing we did — maintain the same programs and the same hours and the same stuff — then we’re not talking apples and apples.”
Councilman Al Allen agreed.
“We cannot afford to subsidize them,” he said of the private firms.
Council members plan to hold a workshop on the matter before Christmas. At that time, they will review a request for proposals and determine the requirements for companies bidding on the contract. If they move forward, the goal would be to line up a company before the spring sports season.
While some council members remain optimistic about possibly saving money through privatization, others remain concerned about the impact of that move on recreation offerings.
“If you give it to a company, they’re not going to run it without making money,” councilman Paul Prince said. “They’re going to be there to make money. That’s not what it’s all about. I’m telling you, if we turn it out to other people, we’re shirking our responsibility.”
County staff have also expressed concerns about the idea.
“There may be viable proposals,” county staff wrote in a memo to council. “But that privatization would ultimately limit citizen access to the facilities and programs. Additionally, the department would no longer have locations to offer Summer Youth Adventure Camp and our After School program, which are two of the department’s most attended programs.”
County officials said they had considered trying to privatize one or two of the rec centers as a test case to gauge interest. But they would have to determine what level of maintenance a private company should provide, how much users could be charged, hours of operation, and other criteria.
“It’s not going to bind council for anything,” county administrator Steve Gosnell said of putting the service out for bid. “We just need to put an RFP together, get it out on the market and see what we get. And then this group and full council can decide if they want to accept it or not.”