Joining Forces

Partnerships Help Parks, Recreation Facilities Improve Effectiveness

By Deborah L. Vence

Developing partnerships with other organizations, whether they are nonprofit or for-profit, is vital in helping to make recreation facilities more effective in executing their plans for new or existing developments or programs.

"The primary reason to partner with others is to collaborate in gaining or conserving resources (i.e., funding, expertise, people, spaces, time) in order to provide facilities, programs or services needed for the community," said Teresa Penbrooke, CEO and Founder of GreenPlay LLC, based in Louisville, Colo., an organization that operates as a consortium of experts, acting as a management tool for agencies by organizing consultant teams that are responsive and understand the needs of administrators and their communities to provide services for park, recreation, open space and related agencies.

But, before deciding on which organization to partner with, some important factors need to be considered.

"It's always good to make it competitive. [Look at different] organizations to see what else is out there in the marketplace," said Adrian Benepe, senior vice president, director of city park development, The Trust for Public Land, New York.

And, you need an exit strategy. "If you are going with just for-profit, you have to have an out clause [that allows you] to terminate the contract at will. If operators can't deliver services, you have to be able to terminate the partnership. You have to have a strong contract with performance measures in it," he said, adding that an RFP process enables you to look at the different respondents.

Penbrooke recommends that a partnership policy be created first.

"We recommend this if they are considering partnering [with an organization]. What that does is that it saves time and allows staff to have a protocol for talking with people without wasting time or under-promising, and sets up a formal approval process," she said.

Practical Steps

Doing your homework is essential in creating a potential partnership. In fact, GreenPlay has a Sample Partnership Policy on its website that provides a guide to the process for forming a partnership between an agency and another entity.

For instance, it states that "This policy is designed to guide the process for XX in their desire to partner with private, non-profit, or other governmental entities for the development, design, construction and operation of possibly partnered recreational or related facilities and/or program partnerships that may occur on city property."

Moreover, the sample policy states that "XX would like to identify for-profit, non-profit and governmental entities that are interested in proposing to partner with the city to develop recreational and related facilities and/or programs. A major component in exploring any potential partnership will be to identify additional collaborating partners that may help provide a synergistic working relationship in terms of resources, community contributions, knowledge and political sensitivity."

Under the sample proposed partnership outline format, the outline includes a section on the "Description of Proposing Organization" that includes the name of the organization, purpose of the organization, years in business and more.

To boot, a list of guiding questions is included to address any details that can help outline the benefits of a possible partnership.

For example, some of the questions for "Meeting the Needs of our Community" include:

  • In your experience, how does the project align with park and recreation goals?
  • How does the proposed program or facility meet a need for agency residents?
  • Who will be the users? What is the projected number and profile of participants who will be served?
  • What alternatives currently exist to serve the users identified in this project?

Under "The Financial Aspect," questions include:

  • Can the project generate more revenue and/or less cost per participant than the agency can provide with its own staff or facilities?
  • Will your organization offer programs at reasonable and competitive costs for participants? What are the anticipated prices for participants?
  • What resources are expected to come from the parks and recreation department?
  • Will there be a monetary benefit for the city, and if so, how and how much?

Benepe added that facilities that want to establish partnerships should ask: What are you after? Service? Or profit? Those are the key questions, he said.

Joining Forces

In San Francisco, "With respect to facilities, our parks include a lot of concessions and a few restaurants. There are places, particular locations, where we've had quite a few different partnerships," noted Philip A. Ginsburg, general manager, San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, City & County of San Francisco.

"In the clubhouses we partnered with mostly nonprofit and a couple of for-profit service providers," he said, adding that the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department runs 27 recreation centers and 48 clubhouses. "We staff our rec centers and have a mix of for-profit and nonprofit partners in clubhouses, mostly nonprofit."

When it comes to a partnership agreement, Ginsburg said it really is a foundation for a successful ongoing relationship, and is really important at the outset that the best of intentions are discussed and even the resources and the roles and responsibilities be spelled out.

"It's certainly important for the partner that often might be a nonprofit," he said.

"With us, I do think we certainly recognize that our park system is better when we work with partners and leverage their resources, expertise and passion," Ginsburg said. "But, I do think partnerships require ongoing trust and communication, and it's important to have ground rules on how partnerships should operate just like any legal partnership in the private sector. But from there it takes care and feeding. And, ongoing communications work, and it's not necessarily always easy. Both partners coming to the relationship have different needs and perspectives and values [that] take work."

For the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, The Trust for Public Land is a key partner as well as the City Fields Foundation.

For example, in San Francisco, a 2004 study had found that San Francisco would need to add 35 soccer fields and 30 baseball/softball fields just to meet demand. For many years, local school teams, youth leagues and after-school programs have accepted as many kids as they can place on fields. Once a league's allotment of fields is full, registration is closed and kids are turned away, according to information from the City Fields Foundation website.

"We were short 36 soccer fields to meet the demands," he said, adding that the interest in the sport, in particular among girls, has grown.

"Since 2006, Recreation and Parks and the City Fields Foundation have worked to address this challenge by renovating select city athletic fields with synthetic turf and field lights. The goal is to increase playable hours on existing sports fields so every San Francisco child has a place to enjoy sports after school. To date, the partnership has renovated 12 multi-use sports fields in six different parks, including Garfield Square, Silver Terrace Playground, Franklin Square, Crocker Amazon Playground, South Sunset Playground, Kimbell Playground and Mission Playground," according to information from the foundation's website.

In another example, San Francisco's Boeddeker Park reopened in December of last year following a $9.3 million renovation. The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, in partnership with The Trust for Public Land, hosted a grand reopening of Boeddeker Park.

Boeddeker Park, which is at the heart of San Francisco's Tenderloin district, serves the city neighborhood with the greatest number of families living below the poverty line. Boeddeker has a critical role to play in providing recreational space in the city's densest neighborhood. But, for years, the park's inhospitable design and minimal amenities discouraged visitors and raised safety concerns among both neighbors and law enforcement. The community was committed to making sure the neighborhood got the park it deserves, according to information from The Trust for Public Land website.

So, The Trust for Public Land worked with the community and dozens of generous public and private donors to transform Boeddeker. The new design incorporates ideas generated in community workshops and focus groups—including outdoor fitness equipment, a walking path with accessible ramps, a large lawn, new play equipment and a full-size basketball court. Features such as water-efficient landscaping and recycled materials make the park and clubhouse a model of sustainable design.

The nearly one-acre Boeddeker Park, as stated on the San Francisco Recreation and Park website, is the largest park in the neighborhood, and one of the densest districts in San Francisco, and has limited open space. The park, which opened in 1985, is named after local pastor Father Alfred Boeddeker.

The renovation consists of significant improvements to the park, including a new 4,300-square-foot clubhouse with green building features and greater visibility into the park, play areas for school age children and toddlers, a regulation-size full court high school basketball court, adult fitness area with outdoor exercise equipment, perimeter walking path, stage and performance area, and outdoor plazas for informal gathering and programs such as Tai Chi.

Benepe added that a worthy partner needs to bring value to a partnership, noting another example of a high-end swimming pool and skating rink in Flushing, Queens, in New York, for which a for-profit company was hired to manage the pool.

"We didn't want it to go downhill. I think we kept municipal lifeguards on a contractual basis," he said.

The Trust for Public Land has a program in place that partners with local education departments and takes public school yards and turns them into playgrounds, but they function as a community playground on the weekends and in the summer.

The unique thing is that not only does the program obtain public money from elected officials, the program also garners money from local water departments for storm water and makes them into green school playgrounds, which contributes to public health and provides an environmental role or function, he explained.

Furthermore, Benepe referred to an article that appeared in Landscape Architecture magazine earlier this year, which stated that "Since the mid-1990s," Trust for Public Land "has converted about 185 New York City schoolyards into community parks through various partnerships with different city agencies."

"TPL's current Playgrounds Program, which includes design services and construction management by the local New York City firm SiteWorks Landscape Architecture, converts about six to 10 schoolyards per year into community parks. To date, about 1.1 million New Yorkers are within a 10-minute walk of a TPL schoolyard park. The organization's goal is to make community parks out of hundreds of remaining asphalt schoolyards throughout the city so that eventually all New Yorkers will be able to walk to a park in 10 minutes. The program is in the midst of being expanded to Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Connecticut."

Moreover, "The TPL program takes these under-used urban dead zones and transforms them into neighborhood parks packed with amenities that can include rows of trees, small farms, basketball courts and green-roofed gazebos with benches that serve as outdoor classrooms. As a condition of participating in the program, schools must commit to keeping their new parks open to the general public from dawn until dusk outside school hours and on weekends."

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