For Hillsborough County residents who turn to low-cost, government-run camps to keep their children busy in the summer, more changes are on the way.
The biggest one: The county is sharply reducing the number of its summer camp sites from about 40 to its 10 major regional parks, with fewer available overall slots for kids. Prices are down slightly, though.
At the same time, the county is rolling out new programs at five of its nature parks, from off-road bicycling for teens at Flatwoods Park in northern Hillsborough to fishing at E.G. Simmons in Ruskin.
"We haven't tried these before, and we're really excited about them," said Shorty Robbins, recreation service manager for the county's parks department.
Families who send their children to summer camps offered by the city of Tampa will see many of the same offerings as last year. After experimenting with increased rates, the city returns with a bargain $80 charge for a full nine-week traditional summer camp at 25 locations.
The city continues to offer a variety of specialty camps as well, allowing kids ages 5 to 17 to focus on things such as swimming and snorkeling or cheerleading.
"We went through a period where our rates did go up," said Santiago Corrado, the city's chief of staff. "We heard from the community loud and clear. Now we're charging less than we've ever charged."
Residents who turn to county parks will have to adapt to a variety of changes.
Since 2008, the county has gradually increased fees for its parks programs in an attempt to recoup more of the costs as tax revenues dwindle. That year, it cost parents $5 per child each week for traditional summer camps offered at 42 locations.
This year, there will be 10 traditional summer camp locations. A link to the available camps can be found at hillsboroughcounty.org.
Another change: Camps will be offered in two-week increments over eight weeks. The fee per child is $76 for each two weeks, falling to $40 for children who qualify for free school lunches. The full price last year was $48 a week.
Parks officials hope parents will take advantage of that to have their children try the new nature camps. The county has a large assortment of more passive parks that it hasn't used in the past for camps beyond the occasional field trip.
"That was one of my early marching orders," said Robbins, who is new to the job. "Figure out how to make camps at these areas. It was easy."
In addition to fishing and biking, a variety of nature-oriented activities, including gardening, hiking and canoeing, are being offered at Lettuce Lake, Eureka Springs and Upper Tampa Bay parks. The fee for those camps is $120 for two weeks, or half that for children of low-income families.
Registration is being handled differently this year as well. Parks workers will hold a demonstration and signup day from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. May 5 at the All People's Life Center, 6105 E Sligh Ave. in Tampa.
After having as many as 4,000 children enrolled in summer camps as recently as 2010, and about 3,000 last year, the county now has room for 1,860.
If things work similarly to last year, the city of Tampa expects to have as many as 6,600 children participate in its summer camps, about a third in traditional camps that offer everything from athletics to computer labs. The city has a link to its brochure of offerings at tampagov.net/ parksandrec.
The city allows children of residents from unincorporated areas to participate, though city residents get a jump on registration. Registration begins Monday for city residents and can be completed online by residents who have a city recreation card, which costs $15 annually. Registration for others begins a week later.
Neither the city nor county summer camp programs charge fees that come close to covering their costs. But even with the annual registration charge, the fee for city camps is a particular bargain, coming out to just more than $10 a week.
"It's a quality-of-life benefit," Corrado said.
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.