But the plan didn’t come out of nowhere. How do you get from tennis to bocce ball? By paying attention to who lives in your community and how they use your amenities – or don’t use them.
“The commons” is an economics term for goods, services and assets that are not bought, sold, or traded on the open, competitive market, but rather are held collectively. Sound familiar? You bet. It’s the tennis courts, swimming pools, pathways, parking lots, and other physical features, including turf and trees, that we usually think of as “amenities.” When it comes to maintenance, we tend to think of the commons as someone else’s responsibility, which is one of the reasons we form community associations and give the boards the responsibility to preserve, protect, and enhance the commons for our continued use and enjoyment.
Because it’s so easy for residents and even boards themselves to take them for granted, the commons can suffer from overuse or neglect – that is, they can be used too much or not enough. (The economics term of this is “crisis of the commons.”) Maybe your board, in trying to keep costs down, has gradually let the property age, depreciate, and become less attractive. Or maybe your membership hasn’t turned over, renewing itself with younger buyers, and longtime residents are content with a community that reflects their “aging in place” values and tastes. Or maybe no one is paying attention.
Whatever the cause, the end result – or one of the end results – is the same: Your amenities don’t reflect who your community is, or who it’s becoming, or who it would like to be. Not enough people are using the tennis courts, or too many of them are using the pool, or new families are wondering why there isn’t a “tot lot”, or seniors are wondering why there is. The problem can be particularly acute for communities with sizable expanses of land, pools, exercise facilities or other significant amenities.
When you have a crisis of the commons, you also have a choice: As your amenities weather and fade, do you repair and replace them to maintain the status quo? Or do you repair and replace them with an eye toward new tastes and growing market trends? In other words, how do you know when it’s time to change (or add) your amenities? And if it is time, how do you make the right changes or additions? These are the questions at the heart of a good amenities audit, and they demand field research.
Survey your residents. Ask them if the character of the community meets their expectations. Does it contribute to the value of their homes? If not, what are the detractors? How would they improve the perceived value of the property?
Survey real-estate agents who regularly show homes in your community. What do they see as your assets and deficits? What amenities induce their customers to buy a home there? What makes others not buy? How would they suggest changing your amenities to make the community more competitive?
Interview new residents – and people who looked but didn’t buy. Ask many of the same questions. Understand there will be some answers over which you have no control, such as proximity to good schools and distance to work, and instead look for answers that speak to community appeal and character.
Focus on specific amenities. Ask residents which amenities are most important in defining the character of the community. (see “sample amenities survey”) Conversely which are the least important? Which amenities contribute most to the selling value of their property or unit? Which amenities do they use the most? The least? You may be surprised by what your audit turns up.
Whatever changes you decide on, you have to implement them. There’s no single correct way to do that. Because an amenities overhaul can be out of the ordinary and require additional board oversight and reporting, some communities create a special committee. Others rely on an existing committee – usually the buildings and grounds committee- to handle the project as part of its annual work plan.
The bottom line is that if your amenities are suffering a crisis of the commons, the greater problem might be a crisis of inertia or a crisis of confusion. Often our biggest challenge as community leaders is simply getting started. But if you’ve done everything else right – if you have robust reserves and a plan to maintain the common elements, if you’re prepared to start thinking strategically about your amenities rather than simply repairing what you already have, and if you’re willing to ask questions and conduct significant research to minimize the uncertainty of forward thinking – there’s no reason you won’t do this right as well. In the long run, communities that act strategically will remain strong, protect owners’ investments and provide the most attractive quality of life.