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

Reaching out

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."

Reaching out, part 2

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."