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Feature Article - November 2003

Partners in Property

Creating partnerships for acquiring new land

By Mitch Martin


When management fails to achieve a goal, critics may mutter the popular phrase "too many cooks." Administrators could learn more from studying how good leaders really make decisions—not with an autocratic leadership style implied by the popular saying, but by relying on a council and community consensus to achieve goals or address problems.

Recreation managers often use the same model of diffused leadership and cooperation, particularly when facing the great challenge of land acquisition. Obtaining new land is one of the most invigorating and challenging projects for recreational facility managers. The acquisition of a new park site will change programming and affect budgets for the life of an organization. And increasingly, parks are turning to partnerships to help share the load of acquiring and operating new park land.

Park partnerships are nothing new, of course. Most people probably played on a neighborhood playground outside the local public school, where the swings and monkey bars were available for nearby families after school hours.

Many local parks were purchased or expanded by private groups. The same approach has preserved historic lands as well; in 1858, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association protected George Washington's estate almost six decades before the National Park Service began preserving America's treasures.

Over the last decade, the ambition, scope and integration of partnerships have proceeded at a dizzying pace. It is not unusual for a single new park facility or playground to be the handiwork of a dozen public, private and corporate organizations.

"It's hard to think of a park agency in the country that doesn't have at least some sort of friends of the park group or other partnership as part of its operation," says Christopher Walker, a senior researcher with the Urban Institute.

Such partnering has allowed recreational programs to continue to improve and advance in the United States despite a budget crisis of historic proportions at the state level, and to a lesser degree in the federal and local governments.

Partnering poses unique challenges and frustrations. Obviously, partnerships diffuse control of any project or program. They can add layers of complexity. Customers may already feel park districts—particularly large park districts—are overly bureaucratic, Walker notes. Clients experience, perhaps rightly, a lack of patience for the politics of fractious stakeholders when it makes playing in a rec league or signing up for a yoga class more cumbersome.

Still, partnered capital programs can have profound benefits. When established as part of a general community improvement plan, new park space can be an economic engine instead of a property-tax black hole.