Joining Forces, Sharing Resources
When combining assets could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship
By Mitch Martin
A marriage (is) based on full confidence, based on complete and unqualified frankness on both sides; they are not keeping anything back; there's no deception underneath it all. If I might so put it, it's an agreement for the mutual forgiveness of sin."—Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen was probably a little too brooding to have the makings of a good recreational facility manager, but what the Norwegian dramatist said about marriage is something any manager would do well to keep in mind. That is particularly true if said manager was about to undertake a multimillion-dollar joint project with another organization that has a far different mission than his or her own.
In an era of tightening budgets, capital project partnerships are growing in popularity across the country because they can provide so much benefit for both sides. The potential for financial savings is obvious. Less obvious, but perhaps equally important, are the opportunities to garner goodwill from community stakeholders and taxpayers when the organization is seen making every effort to spend community resources wisely. An even more subtle benefit is the ongoing alliances and friendships that are gained through the arduous development process.
Yet for each potential benefit there are corresponding pitfalls. Poor coordination between partners can lead to badly designed or built facilities that drain any potential savings. New partners can become frustrated partners if communication isn't clear. If such problems become public—and aren't responded to with alacrity—community good will can turn into community ill will for both sides of a partnership.
For purposes of this article, the phases of a good partnership will be delineated as partner recruiting, initial discussions, planning and development, construction, and operations. Like a marriage, the chances for success in each phase can be greatly improved with hard work, communication and openness.
While it is possible to create a successful partnership without paying much attention to pre-partnership strategies, such success involves a certain amount of luck. Teresa Grills Penbrooke, founder of the Broomfield, Colo.-based consultancy GreenPlay, LLC, places special emphasize on this phase of forming capital partnerships.
Penbrooke advises that park organizations develop a policy that outlines the basic parameters of partnerships before reaching out. The policy can serve as a navigational star, allowing staff and policy-makers to keep their bearings during discussions and implementation of new partnerships.
"Before you ever start talking to people, we advise that you have a policy in place that defines roles and expectations," Penbrooke says.
With such policies in place, parks departments and districts have a much better chance of attaining healthy partnerships, keeping them healthy once they've begun and even being able to decide when a partnership just isn't working. Penbrooke says she has advised clients in the past to break off partnerships because their goals and expectations are simply too far apart.
"You have detailed discussions about just exactly what you expect out of these partnerships," Penbrooke says. "They do include an exit strategy for how to get out of the partnership when it really isn't working."
In and around the far, exurban communities southwest of Chicago, the bulldozers and the landmovers are lined up like armies ready to invade. In the late 1990s, Channahon, Ill., faced booming growth. Charles Szoke, executive director of the Channahon Park District, says the community has been adding more than 200 homes a year for several years. Such growth meant that the park district knew it would need a new recreational facility. Similarly, the school board knew it would need a new junior high school.
In fall 2003, the two governments opened two facilities in a single building: Heritage Crossing Field House and Channahon Junior High School.
The 36,000-square-foot field house features two gymnasiums (one equipped with a maple floor and one with a synthetic floor). The gyms are attached to the junior high, with both governments sharing recreational and meeting space.
The joint project started in the early 1990s, after the park district organized a meeting with local leaders. Szoke says the community has a tradition of healthy relations between different government leaders that made the project possible.
"Although I think we pulled the initial meeting together, if it wasn't us it would have been someone else," Szoke says. "There wasn't a lot of 'this has to be mine' stuff. We just don't have a territorial mindset."
When the city of Boulder purchased the Valmont Park site in 1999, the 132-acre site became the largest park within the city's borders. (The city already owned 28 acres of the site.) However, a referendum for the purchase included no money for developing the site.
Since 1995, Boulder has been trying to develop the acreage through unique funding strategies. A primary initiative is a novel land-lease partnership with two private entrepreneurs. Though still under consideration, Boulder could have an agreement with a tennis facility and an ice facility sometime this year or by 2005.
First, the city must work its way through some fundamental questions about the role of government agencies. Whether or not the city reaches final agreement with its potential partners, the city has already used a unique process to reach out to the partners.
Officials from the parks department and other city representatives sponsored a development process over four years, from 1999 through 2003.
City parks officials say the process has left them with a better understanding of the all-encompassing need to communicate different viewpoints when working in a public-private partnership.
Recreation Superintendent Jamie Sabbach says many private organizations have trouble understanding the public, political and administrative demands of working with public recreation agencies.
"They don't understand how complex a process like this can be," Sabbach says. "However, the groups that survived to the top of the process tended to be able to handle it better, and our confidence in them rose accordingly."
Sabbach says both sides of the process often have had to struggle to understand the motivation of the other side.
"They are entrepreneurs who are interested in generating revenue," Sabbach says. "I'm finding that to be both a blessing and a curse. Not that we don't want to honor that, but no matter the degree to which they are operating a facility, the public's image is that it's our park, and the burden is always going to be with us."
Jeff Lakey, superintendent of the planning and development division, says both sides have to learn to "translate" each other's viewpoints into their own.
"At some level, we both want to serve a constituency; it's just a matter of how you get your reward," Lakey says. "They need to count dollars, and we want to count happiness, or something akin to that."
Lakey says he hopes the development process will provide a model for future initiatives, making them easier.
Sabbach says such lessons are learned with great effort. She believes parks departments shouldn't underestimate the amount of time they need to devote to working out such issues with private groups. She noted that the proposed tennis operator has already worked with another municipality, providing a major advantage in experience for both sides. Sabbach says government officials could gain renewed respect for the abilities of their private counterparts through such processes.
"Sometimes private entities expect the public body to do all the work," Sabbach says. "Some of these groups have really done their homework. I've learned not to be too cynical about the private sector."
Once two partners have agreed in principle to work together, the work remains far from finished. Even with a great deal of foundational work done, partners often keep finding out how different their views of a project remain.
In Channahon, the park district and the school board used a wieldy six-person working group to reach consensus and move forward. The group was made up of two board members from each government as well as Szoke and Channahon School District 17 Superintendent Lynn Krizic. The working group served both as messengers and spokespeople for the two boards.
"Until we put that process in place, I don't think there was the level of communication that needed to be there," Krizic says. "There was a potential for the quality of communication to affect the quality of the partnership, but we became more like a single voice once we put the committee together."
GreenPlay's Penbrooke says leadership must come both from leading administrators, politicians and the public. On the one hand, small groups of leaders are needed to move partnerships along. On the other hand, the partnership must have broad-based support.
"If you don't have that, it doesn't matter how well the operational people get along," Penbrooke says. "Otherwise you have the situation where an athletic facility was pushed by a particular administrator, and when he leaves for another job, then you start having problems."
Although Boulder has agreed to proceed with further planning with two private partners, the city has not at this writing made a final commitment. Like many governments, interactions with private groups can muddle roles, no matter the amount of thinking on the subject.
Sabbach says there are relatively few fundamental questions remaining about the ice rink project. The tennis project brings about a strange issue: Will the park district essentially create competition with itself? The city is one of the main, if not the main, providers of tennis courts in the city.
"It's a unique situation to be in: Are we going to put ourselves out of business?" Sabbach says. "It's just something we have to keep researching. How many tennis players are there in Boulder and how many can we support?"
City officials also are still pondering the difficulties of their novel land-lease approach. The proposal calls for leasing the 12-acre site to the two private operators for 20 years. Such a lease will be long enough to make it worth the private groups' investment in building out the sites. The city is hoping to provide long-term programming agreements to ensure access to the facility for specific populations, such as low-income and special needs children.
Lackey says a particular challenge is trying to figure out a buy-back agreement 20 years hence.
"Hopefully, both sides will be happy then and we won't have to worry about it, but is something we have to try and figure out," Lackey says.
GreenPlay recommends that partners work out in a very detailed way the expectations for each side in developing a new site. The Channahon project was blessed with a relatively smooth construction process that came in under budget. Both Szoke and Krizic credited the working group and construction manager oversight to the success of the construction.
Because the project involved both governments and such a large project for a relatively small community, Szoke says the two governments were intent on making sure the project worked well.
"This was the largest public facility ever built in the community," he says. "People were definitely watching, and I mean that in a positive sense."
Krizic says the two governments had weekly meetings with the construction manager and contractors.
"We communicated as a single entity, and the flow of communication went really well," she says. "We both gave it continual attention."
After hundreds of meetings and negotiations, facility managers can still expect issues to arise—sometimes on a daily basis—once operations begin in a new, shared facility. Partners may find they still don't fully understand the needs and perspective of the other entity when these issues arise.
Less than three months after its grand opening, partners in the Channahon project have had at least one issue provide a test to its relationship, if a rather positive test. The facility includes an elevated running track that circles into gym space used by junior high school students during the day.
Krizic says it is difficult for even the most attentive of people outside education to understand how concerned school professionals can be about school safety in light of national tragedies in recent years. She says the track—which was elevated in part to provide separation from the school—has already been the scene of several minor problems. One was an adult carrying a paper bag onto the track, which concerned school staff. (The bag contained nothing more than a bottle of water.)
"The park district has responded quickly and immediately to every one of our concerns," she says. "They've stepped to the plate, and I can't tell you how much it's been appreciated."
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