LEWISTON — City officials are planning an overhaul of the Recreation Department, which was hit with budget cuts and saw staff turnover due to COVID-19.

Heading into budget discussions this year, city staff is developing a strategic plan for the department, which officials hope will result in better programs and better utilization of Lewiston’s athletic facilities.

During a workshop discussion with the City Council on Tuesday, Public Works Director Mary Ann Brenchick, who oversees the recreation division, pitched the planning as “a new vision” for the department.

She said the idea is to take a comprehensive look at the past successes and failures of the department, and to develop programs that are more beneficial to the community. The department is looking to collaborate more closely with the school department in hopes of offering more after-school programming, and to make athletic facilities more accessible to the community.

Part of the draft plan, she said, is to develop a seasonal publication highlighting all recreation offerings, including senior programs, and upcoming projects.

There are also plans in the works to add new programs, including a rowing program that would utilize the Androscoggin River.

“I think what we offer now is just the start, and there’s a strong energy in the community (and among staff) to really expand those program offerings,” City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil said.

Brenchick said the planning is part of creating “a clean slate” for the department.

In 2020, COVID-19 caused a slew of cancellations and the loss of a key position in the department, along with the eventual departure of former Director Jason Hanken.

The department’s program coordinator — one of only 2.5 employees — was included in 12 vacant city positions that were cut from this year’s budget in response to projected revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic.

At the time, staff said the loss of the position would put all future recreation programs in jeopardy.

Brenchick said they plan to have a new coordinator in place by July, and several councilors said they hope to address the department’s previous budget cuts during upcoming budget discussions this spring.

Brenchick said she’s begun having broad conversations with stakeholders on what they would like to see included in recreation.

On top of the popular sports programs like basketball and soccer, she said other programming could include yoga, cooking, book club, self defense, gardening, diet and nutrition, hiking, outdoor movies and more.

She said they have also had talks with the Public Theatre about boosting arts and culture offerings such as music, dance, children’s theatre, improv and comedy.

Brenchick said Tuesday that when it’s operating, the recreation department is the city’s biggest non-tax revenue source, but that grants and fundraising are also needed to offer programs to those who can’t afford it.

Jake Langlais, superintendent of schools, said he’s been involved in early conversations on recreation, including the potential for tutoring, and mentorship programs for students after school.

He said other discussions have focused on “keeping the lights on” at schools into the evening hours for students to utilize gym spaces.

Mayor Mark Cayer said the effort ties in with the school department’s conversations on combating childhood poverty.

City councilors said they were optimistic about the conversations on recreation, and the potential for making recreation more accessible.

Brenchick said there are loose plans to offer “pop-up” basketball or soccer times at various locations.

But despite the optimism, Councilor Alicia Rea said the city needs to address the recent turnover of staff.

“It might be worth paying them a bit more to keep them longer,” she said.

Councilor Luke Jensen said the planning “sends a strong vision to the people of Lewiston but also outside Lewiston of what we can be.”

Cayer said a strong recreation program “plays a vital role in economic development in the community,” and is hoping the planning can “connect the dots” between the two efforts.

He suggested taking advantage of the city’s public spaces like Dufrense Plaza to host arts events like concerts.

“That’s part of selling this community,” he said.

A final recreation plan will be presented to the council sometime this year.

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