Supplement Feature - April 2015
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Flourish Through Funding

Strategies to Support Park Creation and Maintenance

By Chris Gelbach

The Rise of the Billionaire Donor

The past three years have also brought what are thought to be the nation's three largest-ever gifts made for public parks in cities. These include a record $200 million from the George Kaiser Family Foundation toward the $350 million Gathering Place for Tulsa; more than $113 million from media mogul Barry Diller toward a $130 million New York City floating public park called Pier 55 on the Hudson River; and a $100 million gift from hedge fund manager John A. Paulson to the Central Park Conservancy. These types of gifts set an example that could prove inspiring to other philanthropists.

"That means that park managers need to become really adept at reading the landscape and knowing who the players are [in their community] and what the potential sources of money might be, whether it's philanthropic from individuals, from corporations, from foundations, from government grants," Benepe said. "Pretty much every park department, no matter how small, should have at least one person working in it who's going after other people's money." According to Benepe, a good grant writer can often secure funding that's worth several times the investment in their salary.

In addition to knowing who the local players are, parks departments should also be in close contact with other area agencies and aware of all upcoming large infrastructure projects. "When big infrastructure takes place in cities, particularly protective infrastructure on shorelines and green infrastructure for stormwater management, you want to be sure that parks are included in the calculations," Benepe said.

Likewise, good communication with the transportation department is key, particularly for opportunities such as trail development. "Being part of whatever the process is for considering bike-type facilities within road-widening projects or road reconstruction is really hugely important," said Kelly Pack, director of trail development for the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

For these reasons, a staff member who understands the political landscape and can work effectively with sister agencies and different levels of government—and the funding sources they provide—can also be incredibly valuable. "Federal funds, whether it's through the Transportation Alternatives program or the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, are really important and are the primary sources of funding for trails and greenways," Pack said.

Community Engagement

Likewise, community engagement can be critical for the lasting success of any park or playground project. Even some trail projects are being funded successfully through local efforts.

One example is the 10-mile Tweetsie Trail being developed between Johnson City and Elizabethton in Tennessee, which is being built solely with donations from individuals, businesses and local governments. To recognize and encourage this support, those who donate $300 get their name on a trail bench. Those who donate $250 for trail surfacing get recognized on trail signage. Contributors of $100 are named on brick pavers. And those who give the $10,000 to $60,000 needed to remodel and surface one of the trail's seven bridges and overpasses can get a bridge named after them.

When building local support for park projects, getting the community involved as early as possible can lay the foundation for stronger long-term engagement. David Flanigan, director of grants for KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit dedicated to bringing play into the lives of all kids, has seen this regularly in his work.

"When you put in a playground using a contractor, we see that it often doesn't get the same level of utilization as a playground put in through community engagement and sometimes even installed by community volunteers," Flanigan said. "The utilization rate goes way up and the stewardship and maintenance of that playground goes up even more."

In dense urban environments, creating partnerships with other entities can help park district access additional land for public use while reducing maintenance costs. For example, Benepe notes that more part-time schoolyards are being turned into full-time playgrounds. Sometimes, all that's needed is permission from the school. In other instances, park funds can be used to improve the schoolyard in return for opening the space to the community after school and on holidays and weekends.

As part of a strategic community engagement effort, a dedicated volunteer coordinator can be another investment that pays dividends for a parks department. "Even if you value your volunteer donations at minimum wage, if you invest $50,000 a year in a volunteer coordinator, you'll probably see a $250,000 a year return in volunteer labor," Benepe said.