Feature Article - June 2010
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A Look at Trends in Parks & Recreation


or our parks and recreation respondents, the news this year is mixed. Many performed better than expected in the past year, some performed worse. Many have had to endure staff and budget cuts. Others have been able to position what they do as an essential service. Some have closed facilities and scaled back construction plans, while others are pushing forward, expanding their existing facilities and even building new. But, there's no doubt that the economic downturn has had a major affect on these facilities.

A May 2010 report from the National League of Cities indicates that most cities and towns across the United States are facing worsening economic conditions, leading to layoffs and reductions in city services. According to The State of American Cities Survey on Jobs and the Economy, seven out of 10 city officials are responding to the economic crisis with personnel cuts, including layoffs, hiring freezes and furloughs. Many cities are even cutting public safety spending and healthcare benefits.

The biggest problem for municipalities is the declining property market. More than 80 percent of officials cite the commercial market as a particular concern. The loss of property taxes due to the strains on this market is a "stubborn barrier" to economic recovery among these local government agencies.

While the report does not specifically mention parks and recreation as one of the casualties of the difficult budget cuts being made across the country, we do know that these services are being deeply cut—many at a time when citizens are relying on them most.

The report also mentions significant cuts to capital projects—more than two-thirds (68 percent) of city officials surveyed said they were cutting capital projects. And, unfortunately, due to their reliance on tax dollars, city and state governments tend to lag in the recovery. More than half of respondents to the State of American Cities survey are anticipating that next year will see even greater cuts in city services if taxes or fees are not raised. The organization is calling for a federally funded local jobs bill to get city workers back on the job and to boost services in local communities. City agencies are usually the front line in providing services to citizens facing economic hardships of their own.

When everything is on the table as an option to be cut, it takes strong leaders to assert the value of parks and recreation to their communities. And, in fact, anecdotally, we heard from many respondents this year who feel a growing need to educate their city leaders about the value that parks and recreation brings to the table. Many park agencies provide daycare options, early childhood education, fitness opportunities and much more in their communities.

One respondent's top concerns were, "creating a community full of advocates for park, recreation and golf programs, services and amenities" and "positioning parks and recreation as a critical component of establishing" the city's vision of providing a high-quality community.

Another respondent agreed, adding that there is a "need for parks and recreation to be in a spotlight. More opportunity for funding is needed to promote health and safety and economic impact."

Another respondent added, "We need to be considered infrastructure, not luxury. We need protection for our open space and riparian areas. We need a parkland dedication or fee-in-lieu structure in place statewide."

Another respondent emphasized that this is a marketing issue. By reaching out to the public about the importance of parks, agencies can improve their performance. "The more persons parks and recreation can get involved with, the greater chance for continued level funding or increased funding will be. In our case, where programs revenues offset program expenditures, we are able to do more with increased participation."

There is no doubt that park agencies are feeling the pinch. But before we discuss the specific information gleaned from Recreation Management's Industry Report survey, let's break down some of the general information about who our parks respondents are.