A faculty member's involvement in improving a community park gives sport management students a glimpse at future

An effort to raise nearly $1 million to upgrade a Big Rapids park to help encourage recreational activities is being headed by Jon Coles, a longtime community member with deep connections to local sports.

Coles is also a Grand Valley assistant professor of sport management, which means he can share with his students in real time his experiences, helping them more deeply understand the field. 

He said he has discussed with his students fundraising, working with engineers and other professionals to conceptualize projects and agree on price points, and other objectives of such an all-encompassing community project.

Coles chairs the Hemlock Park Improvement Project, which was established by community members to enhance the park through projects that include pickleball courts, basketball courts, an accessible kayak launch, tennis courts and a splash pad.

Jon Coles
As he leads an effort to improve a community park, Jon Coles is able to give his students real-world, real-time examples of sport management capabilities.
Image credit - Valerie Hendrickson

Improving public recreational amenities is crucial for anyone but especially children, "who may see options limited as the business of youth sports grows to the exclusion of some," Coles said.

"One thing we talk about in class is that youth sport participation is on the decline but costs are on the increase, so it becomes haves versus have-nots," Coles said. "So community-based, free outdoor facilities is a way to give kids those opportunities."

Encouraging kids to get outside and have fun can instill lifelong habits of exercise, he noted. That can start even as early as the splash-pad set, with little ones experiencing the joy of running through the water elements.

But of course that encouragement to get moving is relevant for any age. That has never been more true than during the pandemic, when people have craved time outdoors for both their physical and mental health, Coles said.

The pandemic also had an effect on planning and fundraising by driving up construction costs and increasing the initial goal of raising $740,000 to close to $1 million, he said.

He said sharing his experiences about fundraising with sport management students is an important enhancement to their education, as the field has an increasing business and revenue-generating focus at every level of sports.

"I talk to my classes about how to raise money, how to present a sales pitch, how to change it based on who you are speaking to and how to meet the needs of your potential partner," Coles said. "Whether it is corporate or small business, catering your pitch to the potential partner is what students will be doing when they graduate."

And in the end, the basis for his community and professional work is movement, a central tenet of the Movement Science Department that houses the sport management program, Coles said.

"Our department teaches the art, science, philosophy and fundamentals of movement. This project will get people moving and I couldn’t be more proud of that," Coles said.


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