Feature Article - February 2004
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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.

Playing the field

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."