Flourish Through Funding
Strategies to Support Park Creation and Maintenance
By Chris Gelbach
As recreation managers consider funding for public parks today, they are faced with a growing array of options. To fully harness these resources requires an increasing sophistication about potential funding mechanisms, which can include everything from legislative approaches to grants, volunteer coordination, concessions contracts and even crowdsourcing.
A Golden Age for Parks
Departments that are savvy in assembling in-house expertise across these areas may be able to access more potential funds for their parks than have been available for generations—particularly in urban areas.
"There's been a greater level of investment and interest in creating new parks in major cities than we've seen in a number of decades, maybe even going back to the 1930s," said Adrian Benepe, senior vice president and director of city park development for The Trust for Public Land (TPL). "It's very much a golden age right now for park development in a number of cities."
According to Benepe, this urban growth includes everything from traditional parks to playgrounds, trails and greenways, as well as fitness facilities. "There's been some very heavy investment in certain cities and what I sometimes refer to as a peaceful arms race as to who can develop the biggest and best new parks," Benepe said.
Ballot Victories Fuel Parks
Recent successes in passing ballot initiatives to secure park funding have been integral. Among the park-funding victories in 2014 were the creation of the Seattle Park District through city residents' approval of a ballot proposition that provides sustainable funding for Seattle Parks and Recreation. In Florida, voters passed the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, Amendment 1. This dedicates a portion of the existing excise tax on documents to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, which was developed to acquire and improve conservation areas and other public lands. According to Benepe, this could generate up to $18 billion over 20 years.
"It's an interesting paradox that while there was a move toward Republicanism in many places, there were also resoundingly strong votes in favor of the environment and conservation in California, in New Jersey, in Florida and in many other places," Benepe said.
Cities are additionally turning more often toward other funding mechanisms for public space creation and maintenance. These include tax increment financing and business improvement districts. Cities are also increasingly relying on public-private partnerships such as conservancies to provide financial support for parks. According to a new TPL paper on the topic, 41 of the most prominent conservancies across the United States spent $158.9 million on operations and capital construction in 2012. As the report also notes, more than half of those organizations weren't founded until after the year 2000.
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.
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.
Another way to bring in volunteer labor is to partner with local corporations for things like clean-up days. According to Catherine Nagel, executive director of the City Parks Alliance, one advantage of these relationships is that many corporations that regularly take part in these projects have someone in house to lead these efforts. "The parks department has to figure out what the project is, but they don't have to recruit all of the individuals," Nagel said. "You just have to deal with their recruiting staff internally, and that can be an ongoing relationship."
Local corporate partners are also becoming an increasingly important source of funding. The key is finding opportunities that align the company's brand with park needs. For example, health systems both have deep pockets and are a natural fit for activities that support a healthy lifestyle.
An example of one such partnership can be seen with the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a multiuse greenway in Greenville, S.C. In 2007, Greenville Hospital System (now the Greenville Health System) announced a commitment to sponsor the trail by providing $100,000 each year for a decade to the Greenville County Recreation Department to assist with its development and marketing efforts. In return, the system got naming rights to what is now known as the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail.
Pack notes that some trails are also finding resources for ongoing maintenance through partnerships with utility companies that allow the companies to lease the trail corridor for fiber optic or power line right-of-ways.
Events, be they festivals or races that provide branding opportunities, are another way to draw in more corporate sponsors. "It's easier to get corporate sponsorship if there's an event that's going to provide some exposure to those sponsors," Nagel said. She noted that ongoing programs focused on environmental education can also provide good opportunities for support from both corporate and foundation donations.
Park funding can also come from maximizing the revenue potential of existing parks without compromising their primary role as a public good. "I think that the key is to be as entrepreneurial as possible," Nagel said. "Are there opportunities for restaurants or filming rights or using spaces for weddings or meetings? How can you use your existing facilities to generate some more funding in a way that benefits the entire community?"
In some cases, costs can be reduced and revenue increased through the strategic use of private partners. "Anything that really runs as a business—marinas, cafes, golf courses, tennis pros, things like that—can all be concessioned out and you can get better services at lower costs, reduce operating expenses and gain revenue," Benepe said.
When using such an approach, Benepe recommends that park districts protect themselves by having concessionaires audited carefully by an outside auditor. He also recommends that the park district retain control of the fees, use a license or contract rather than a lease for greater security should the operator not work out, and include a termination-at-will clause in the contract.
Pursuing the Dream Park
When initially considering funding for a trail or park, Pack recommends thinking about what your dream looks like. "Go ahead and think about what all of those amenities might cost, and then plan a phased approach for implementation," Pack said. "And you might be able to get funding sources from different places, depending on whatever the size of that amenity might be."
Thinking big can also lead to potential partnerships that can enhance the entire project, such as through opportunities to partner with local arts organizations to incorporate interactive public art. It can also help you think about the ways in which the park can provide multiple benefits to the community.
"Everything is about how parks can display that they are multifunctional," Nagel said. "That they're not just about recreation. That they're also about environmental conservation, and about health, and about community cohesion."
In the process, sometimes an initial funding success can also lead to bigger things. Flanigan noted the example of Spartanburg, S.C., which was able to secure significant foundation funding after KaBOOM! designated the city as a Playful City USA community.
"Success breeds success, and I think that when you start to work at getting a small grant to get things going, it has a multiplier effect," Flanigan said. "Having those proof points really helps to bring in additional dollars, especially from the business community. If they see the investment the city is making in ensuring that families are going to want to live and work there, it has a ripple impact on the long-term investment that can be made in that city."
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