Guest Column - January 2010
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Parks & the Economy

Tough Times Require Leadership

By David N. Emanuelson Ph.D. and Tod J. Stanton

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was estimated that over 25 percent of the American workforce was unemployed. In response to the forced leisure time that this economic upheaval created, municipalities were faced with three choices: cut funding to their parks and recreation agencies to save money, increase funding to provide recreational services to fill the forced leisure time, or leave funding alone.

In 1934, when the DeKalb, Ill., City Council decided to leave funding alone, the League of Women Voters decided to act. They initiated a referendum to create a park district to build a new swimming pool, which passed. When given the choice of what to do, the public chose to increase spending.

Many states do not have the laws creating special districts to provide parks and recreation services. Most are dependent on general purpose governments like counties, cities, villages and towns to provide them.

Given the choice, even in good economic times, elected officials do not always support parks and recreation. Many believe that services such as police, fire and public works are more important to the community. And during tough economic times they often cut funding to parks and recreation first.

The problem with this fiscally conservative strategy of cutting funding to parks and recreation is that it is not what the public really wants. What parks and recreation professionals need to do is prove what the public wants. They need to use scientific techniques such as polling, surveying and public meetings to make the will of the public heard.

In late 2008, a county park system in Wisconsin did just that. They performed telephone and mail surveys, and held public meetings to show the county supervisors what the public wanted.

The results helped convince the supervisors to reverse a decision to divert substantial impact fee money to the proposed county jail capital project and allocate that money into the much needed park improvements the public desired.

In January 2009, a Massachusetts parks and recreation department conducted extensive mail surveying and showed the town selectmen the results. The results persuaded the selectmen to not cut the parks and recreation department's budget.

Even in Illinois, a state with a history of award-winning park districts, park board members often are concerned that during tough economic times there is little appetite for tax increases to fund parks and recreation initiatives.

But in mid-2009 one park district allayed the board's concerns by conducting traditional mail and telephone surveys coupled with online and e-mail polls. Online and e-mail respondents were younger, and their households more likely to have children. The results showed that, in general, more people favored a tax increase to improve the parks than opposed it, especially younger households with children. (See figure.)