WASHINGTON -- Think times are tough these days for corporate CEOs? Try being a big city parks chief.
From Philadelphia to Los Angeles, city park agencies are in turmoil, struggling to keep up large programs with what amount to skeleton crews on ever-shrinking budgets. With the departure last month of Recreation and Parks Director Marvin Billups Jr., Baltimore, too, is feeling the pain.
The new temporary head of Rec and Parks, Kimberley Amprey, a former CitiStat analyst, has thrown herself into improving agency efficiency and management. But what should she do about the financial shortfall?
There are three principal sources of money for city parks: public funds from taxes, private donations from gifts and user money from fees. Let's look at them in reverse order.
Baltimore Rec and Parks brings in about $1 million a year in fees from recreation centers, sports leagues and special events, plus another $400,000 from a separate contract for the city's five golf courses. That comes to a $2.15 fee income per resident. But other cities do much better. Indianapolis generates $3.9 million ($4.94 per resident), Austin $10.1 million ($15.38 per resident), and Cincinnati $11.7 million (an amazing $34.43 per resident).
Of course, the mission of a city park system is not to milk its citizenry by charging top dollar for everything, and any system that raises fees should institute scholarship programs and fee-less days to support those too poor to pay. But as recreation consultant Leon Younger points out, "You should set your fees based on the 80 percent of the people who can pay, not the 20 percent of the people who can't," and then arrange for a safety net for the others.
If Baltimore takes a hard look at the value of its parkland and recreation programs, it might well find some woeful undercharging.
For example, the city generally assesses promoters $1,000 or less to put on large events in parks like Druid Hill or Patterson. In comparison, when Microsoft wanted to launch a new product with a Sting concert in New York's Bryant Park, the price was negotiated at $300,000.
In Cincinnati, adult athletic fees bring in $400,000 a year and yearly rec center memberships raise another $150,000. In Los Angeles, movie-making, TV and print advertising shoots in Griffith Park generate about $300,000. And Baltimore has parkland just as beautiful as Griffith.
What about the private sector? Baltimore's Department of Recreation and Parks brought in about $400,000 in philanthropic grants and donations in 2001. That's a start -- it comes to about 61 cents per resident -- but it's less than one-third of the average of what other cities got in private gifts, according to the Trust for Public Land.
In comparison, Houston pulled in $2.6 million ($1.35 per resident) and Boston $3.5 million ($5.86 per resident). But that only scratches the surface.
In an increasing number of cities, park-loving residents are establishing private conservancies that refurbish park structures, solve ecological problems, purchase trees and even pick up some on-going maintenance costs.
The Piedmont Park Conservancy in Atlanta, Friends of Hermann Park in Houston and Forest Park Forever in St. Louis are all multi-million-dollar operations that have made eye-popping improvements to the flagship parks they serve. Pittsburgh Park Conservancy is going further, undertaking capital projects in all four of the city's large parks, even those not in the best neighborhoods.
Downtown areas are seeing the rise of park improvement districts, such as New York's Bryant Park Restoration Corp. Under this mechanism, a group of businesses or commercial landlords around a park agree to assess themselves a small per-square-foot fee to help maintain or program the area under the theory that an attractive park will not only be good for their employees but will also stimulate business and sales.
In conversations with the Trust for Public Land, the Baltimore Development Corp. has indicated that it may be interested in trying something similar for the portion of the Gwynns Falls Trail that will run through the Carroll Camden Industrial Park renewal area.
That gets to the larger point.
In an urban universe of economic activity, parks are not financial black holes. Rather, they are integral ingredients of the city fabric, adding value only in relation to what's invested in them. Beautiful, safe parks are a pleasure to live near and will help raise home prices and generate more property tax -- as we're seeing around Patterson Park these days. Clean downtown plazas with shaded places to sit and lots of stimulating activity are magnets that attract shoppers and generate more sales tax, as we know from the Inner Harbor.
After all else is tried, there is still no way to have a great park system without also spending tax money on it. The budget can come straight from the general treasury, as in most cities, or it can come from a back-door account, such as special property assessments in Chicago and Minneapolis, a sales tax hike in St. Louis or even Baltimore's old "trolley tax." It's still tax money and it's still the right thing to do.
Where there is leadership, dynamism, good ideas and a collaborative spirit, there will be money. Baltimore is a can-do city. It could be even better with a can-do park system.
Peter Harnik is director of the Green Cities Program of the Trust for Public Land, based in Washington.