In the not too distant past, simply having a gatehouse, golf course and swimming pool were a sure-fire way for a community association to attract residents and boost property values.
By most accounts, that’s no longer the case. Increasingly, associations are revamping their facilities and programming to create a new type of community. They’re working to stay relevant by going beyond just brick-and-mortar amenities, traditional clubs and staid holiday parties.
They’re installing dog parks and community gardens, re-energizing musty clubhouses, repurposing underused volleyball courts, buying community buses, and offering high-end food, music, art, education and action sports-based programs.
“The typical gated-community model doesn’t work anymore,” says David Twiggs, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, chief operating officer of Hot Springs Village Property Owners Association in Hot Springs, Ark., a 40-year-old development that’s one of the largest gated communities in the U.S.
Twiggs says today’s homeowners are seeking a lifestyle more focused on doing, serving and learning. They want to live in a place that’s authentic and provides opportunities to connect. He says associations that want to stay relevant need to focus on relationship-building amenities, activities and events—things communities large and small
“It’s about creating experiences for people,” Twiggs says. “With the old ‘gates-and-golf’ model, people were focused on exclusivity: ‘You can’t come here; we’re completely private.’ ” But the baby boomers—the typical buyers at Hot Springs Village—don’t care about that. They care more about experiences than another round of golf, according to Twiggs.
Hot Springs Village owners aren’t alone in their opinions of golf. A 2013 National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) survey of homebuyers found that only 3 percent of all respondents said buying a home in a golf course community was “essential,” while 66 percent said they didn’t want to buy in a golf course community.
When buyers were asked to choose among 25 amenities that would seriously cause them to buy in a community, walking and jogging trails ranked first (cited by 60 percent), while having a park area ranked second (54 percent) and outdoor swimming pools third (50 percent).
Twiggs has seen firsthand how living in a golf course community like Hot Springs Village isn’t the priority it once was. He’s been a community development planner since 1994 and joined Hot Springs Village in 2013.
The community, established in 1970, is on 26,000 sprawling acres in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains in Southwest Arkansas. It has about 9,000 homes and is about 30 percent developed. The community has nine golf courses, 13 clay tennis courts, 11 lakes, two full-service marinas, more than 20 miles of nature trails and a 28,000-square foot fitness center, not to mention bocce courts, pickleball courts and a new dog park.
Twiggs says association leaders realized they would have to make more investments in amenities like a village center, an art village and better accessibility to trails and lakes—things many newer communities already have. But the association also is developing amenities that require lower capital investment.
In late 2013, Hot Springs Village kicked off Rock Porch Sessions, a free, twice-a-month music event featuring local artists. In April 2014, the association installed Grove Park, a 6-acre park in the woods that has a weekly farmers market, monthly artisans’ market, music and entertainment.
Action sports and “experiences” are hot among the 55-and-up buyers in the region, according to Twiggs. That’s why the association launched Basecamp, a program that offers standup paddleboards and kayaks, and a rod-and-gun club that organizes hunting trips.
“Those types of concierge services make you more marketable and competitive,” Twiggs says.
As if that weren’t enough, a new chef’s table series features outdoor dinners. The association also is developing a 21-acre educational garden and is considering adding a woodworking and metalworking studio that would draw visiting artists.
Magic Bus and More
Many larger communities now have dedicated lifestyle managers, including Brambleton Community Association, a growing development on 2,500 acres near Ashburn, Va., that’s home to 4,500 families. Brambleton has several pools and clubhouses, community garden plots, exercise stations, play equipment, fields, sport courts, ponds for fishing and more than 10 miles of trails.
Some of those amenities are on land once planned for a golf course. The first home in Brambleton was finished in 2001, but shortly thereafter, the community’s developer realized golf “had peaked and was actually in a decline,” notes Richard “Rick” Stone, AMS, LSM, PCAM, the community’s general manager.
Because there were numerous courses in the area, the developer scrapped golf and began planning a trail system that meandered through the community “for all residents to enjoy, not just the golfers,” Stone adds.
Now, Brambleton is considering building a course for enthusiasts of parkour—the sport of traversing obstacles by running, climbing or leaping—and working with the developer to build an inline hockey rink. The community constantly evaluates its programs, events and amenities through surveys, attendance reports and responses on social media.
In 2014, the association bought a gently used 28-passenger bus—repainted and dubbed the “BRAM” bus—for things like teen day trips and to ferry residents to local wineries and ball games.
Blackhawk Homeowners Association in Danville, Calif., which has 2,027 single-family homes on 2,097 acres, oversees a couple of parks, including some with baseball, T-ball and soccer fields, and a playground. The adjoining country club owns and operates two golf courses, tennis courts, a swimming pool and all social events.
The association recently took steps to rejuvenate its underused amenities. In November, it added a quarter-mile bicycle path around the playground at a cost of about $20,000.
“We have a couple of new board members who thought it was time to shake things up a little bit and make better use of a beautiful park that nobody ever uses,” says Mark Goldberg, PCAM, Blackhawk community manager.
The board also is considering replacing a volleyball court—now obscured by trees and shrubs—with a kickball court. “It was never very popular and turned out to be a place for teenagers to party at night,” Goldberg explains.
The association hoped to install a dog park, but for now, the idea is on hold since a county land use change request would require that it be handicap accessible. Blackhawk currently doesn’t have the funds or enough land to adjust the existing path.
The association also considered installing a skateboard park, but the idea was quickly quashed. “Our insurance company nicely told us to look for a new liability carrier if we wanted it,” Goldberg says.
Dusting Off the Clubhouse
Newtown Grant Homeowners Association in Newtown, Pa., which has 1,751 single-family homes, townhomes and condominiums on 486 acres, has been working to restore a sense of community and encourage residents to use amenities that haven’t been used in years.
Until recently, the community’s 2,500-plus square-foot clubhouse was locked most of the time. The association asked Marianne C. Fein, CMCA, AMS, a FirstService Residential portfolio manager assigned to the 28-year-old community, to move into the building.
In the past 18 months, the association spent about $30,000 to renovate the clubhouse’s community room by upgrading the kitchen and buying tables and chairs to create a banquet area residents can rent. It also spent about $3,000 to repair the roof. Today, requests to use the banquet room are brisk.
“I have people say, ‘I’ve lived here 20 years and have never been in the clubhouse,’ ” Fein says.
Newtown Grant also installed new stones and tile around the community’s pools for $30,000 and resurfaced tennis courts for about $80,000. Future plans include replacing playground equipment and installing a dog park.
Board president William McManimon says the association is “fortunate to have built the reserves necessary to fund the renovations and repairs,” and is now focused on promoting its programs. The association is upgrading its community newsletter, establishing a Facebook page and working to get e-mail addresses of all residents.
Newtown Grant tries to bring residents together through Easter egg hunts and Halloween parties, and it’s now branching out its activities with beer tastings, a monthly cooking class and a planned BYOB trivia night. Not all of its efforts have been successful. No one signed up for a Ping-Pong tournament, and interest in a children’s arts-and-crafts program and an adult book club were lukewarm.
“It’s a bit of trial and error, but we have high hopes for 2015,” Fein says.
Beware of Fads
Steven Y. Brumfield, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, a CAI past president and national director of community associations for Toll Brothers, has noticed many associations are adding lazy rivers, water slides, play sets and other aquatic features to enhance their swimming pools. Pickleball also has become more popular; the developer has added courts to some of its properties.
David H. Richey, president of Toll Golf, says the company differentiates between fads, which are short-term interests, and trends that have staying power.
“We’re not going to go put some bowling alleys in a clubhouse to see if that’s hot,” Richey says.
Instead, Toll Brothers surveys homeowners at its communities and adapts programming for each one. At The Hasentree Club in Wake Forest, N.C., vegetables grown by a kids’ garden club are donated to a local church to help feed the hungry. Others have book, running, motorcycle, bridge and chess clubs, to name a few.
“At the end of the day, it really is probably less about what we are building in terms of brick and sticks and more about the lifestyle that we create in each of our communities,” Brumfield says.
- Conduct surveys. A survey can be a great tool but avoid vague questions, warns Mark Goldberg, PCAM, manager of Blackhawk Homeowners Association in Danville, Calif. He says you’re likely to get complaints if you ask: “What do you like or not like about our recreation programs?” Be specific and ask residents to rate different options: “We’re considering a dog park, bocce ball courts or more tennis courts. Which is most important to you?”
- Seek professional help. Hire experts to help you design and estimate costs. “Everything costs more than initially planned,” Goldberg warns.
- Simplify. Consider working with what you have. Toll Brothers sometimes provides tic-tac-toe golf or corn-hole golf to encourage children to play the game. Because some younger people—think 30-somethings—don’t have the time or patience to play 18 holes of golf, you may want to offer a “pay for what you play” concept; lower your prices if someone wants to play four, five or six holes.
- Inform and celebrate. Keep residents informed throughout a project’s development, and throw a kickoff party when it’s complete. —P.B.
Kiawah Island Community Association in South Carolina has been evaluating members’ interest in potential amenities and their willingness to pay higher assessments for any changes since 2011, when it created a task force to study the issue. The community has more than 4,000 single-family homes, townhomes and condominiums on 10,000 acres, plus 10 miles of beach.
The task force issued a lengthy report in the summer of 2012, and in 2013, the association hired the McMahon Group, a St. Louis based-consulting firm, to help the community determine what it should offer.
McMahon held several focus groups and surveyed residents. Then the association developed concepts, such as a new indoor pool or spa facility and improvements to the fitness facility. The association surveyed residents about the concepts—costs included. The average additional assessment members were willing to pay was $658 a year.
“It’s an exhaustive process, but I think we have a pretty good sense of what’s important to folks,” says Jimmy Bailey Jr., CMCA, AMS, Kiawah Island chief operating officer. The association found that:
- Golf is in decline for a variety of reasons, including the time it takes to play, cost and the perception that it’s a sport for older generations. Although Kiawah is internationally acclaimed for its links, one-third of its residents don’t play at all, and about 20 percent only play a couple times a year.
- Outdoor activities like fitness and leisure trails are at the top of the list. Fifty-five percent of residents said they wanted to see upgrades to the community’s 3,000-square-foot fitness facility. Meanwhile, 85 percent said leisure trails are the most important amenity; the community already has about 20 miles of them. Respondents also said they like facilities geared toward family activities.
- Rinse showers and restroom facilities near the beach also were popular requests; the association had never considered the additions.
Kiawah Island also discovered residents thought some new amenities were great ideas—until they saw price tags. The indoor pool or spa facility, for example, was “rejected rather resoundingly” once residents were presented with costs, Bailey says.
The association is evaluating results further and will develop options for members to vote on this year.
Bailey says understanding changing demographics is key to planning for the future. Younger and more recent buyers have different ideas of what a community should have compared to those who purchased 20 years ago.
“Clearly, the newer buyers are interested in more modern, updated facilities and fitness,” Bailey says. “The newer buyers are an absolute validation of all the national trends that we see.” —P.B.
by: Pamela Babcock is a freelance writer in the New York City area.