City Parks in US Need Green: Money, That Is

Recession affects maintenance, programs

FOR many city dwellers, the trees, grass, and flowers of public parks offer a summer respite as satisfying as a lovely concert. Many who swim, picnic, and read in city parks - or walk, run, and bike through them - say these cool oases of green amid so many miles of sun-baked concrete and blacktop are what make crowded city living bearable.

But in many cities hard hit by the recession, park budgets have been slashed or frozen. Some cities now rely almost wholly on fees and gifts for park upkeep. Fees, now attached to everything from tennis to education programs, can vary from as little as 15 to 20 percent of a park system's budget to as much as 80 percent, says Thomas Goodale, coordinator of the parks, recreation, and leisure-studies division of George Mason University in Virginia.

"But the trend over the last 15 years has been very clearly in the direction of more self-generated revenue and less demand on the general levy or tax dollars," he says.

Many park systems now have their own fund-raising arms to court businesses and other potential donors. Dr. Goodale calls the move an attempt to "professionalize" past park efforts to get small donations. Partnerships utilized

"Public-private partnerships are really what we're into in the '90s," says Regina Hayes, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Park District. She says the help goes for everything from park maintenance to landscape projects and outdoor sculpture. The Chicago park system is experimenting with a charge for parking on a road near the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Sometimes gifts cancel the need for fees. Corporate sponsorships, for instance, of some of the 27 swimming pools in the Phoenix, Ariz., Department of Parks, Recreation, and Libraries allow many children under 18 to use them without charge.

The Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins have helped fund programs for children in the Boston park system.

One of the largest and most impressive gifts to date is one company's energetic effort over the last two months to rebuild the main lodge of a girl's camp in Los Angeles' Griffith Park. The lodge, which serves as the dining hall and main meeting place, burned in a suspicious fire in May, just after the Los Angeles riots. Kaufman and Broad Home Corporation, the largest producer of single-family housing in California, took on the reconstruction, and public officials streamlined the permit process. Some 70 suppliers, subcontractors, and vendors donated labor and materials. The new lodge, being dedicated today, amounts to a $1 million gift-in-kind, according to Al Goldfarb, spokesman for the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

A few municipal park systems, including the Wheeling Park Commission in Wheeling, W.Va., have used property and other gifts to develop park playgrounds that actually qualify as resorts. Oglebay Park, just outside of town, has a lodge with more than 200 rooms, cabins, tennis courts, three golf courses (one a championship course), and a zoo. A sister park has a lake with paddle boats, an ice skating rink, and a pool with water slide. The revenue is used to help maintain the park.

"We're probably one of the few self-sustaining parks in the US," says Claire Walters, a member of the Wheeling commission's staff.

Barry Tindall, director of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), notes that some city park systems, such as those of Kansas City, Mo.; Stillwater, Okla.; and Chicago are actually in a growth mode despite the generally tough economic times.

Chicago will invest $40 million in public money for capital improvements over the next few years. The Windy City has been under a court order to redress a perceived imbalance in available park and recreation facilities in minority neighborhoods.

Mr. Tindall says the money available for parks in some cities is often part of the ripple effect of a relatively vibrant economy. Many park officials feel they have little choice but to move in new directions if they want their parks to survive. Changes worrisome

Yet the financing changes are worrisome to veteran park analysts such as Goodale. "The problem with fees is that they tend to increase the inequities.... I'm not sure how much more we can expect from the private sector; my sense is that some of these things are tapped almost dry.... I'm not a pessimist by nature,... but I don't see this situation turning around quickly."

Often those who need public parks the most are those of modest means, notes Randy Arndt, spokesman for the National League of Cities. Yet they are the first to lose access if fees are charged, he says.

Tindall cautions against viewing the private sector as a white knight. "A lot of people say the private sector can come in and save us, [but] the private sector will [take the] cream off every revenue-generating operation you have and leave the city with all of the non-revenue-producing facilities."

Experts agree that homelessness presents a severe challenge for many urban parks.

"You can't just throw people out of parks," says Tindall. "You try to get the social service agencies, the park agencies, and housing and health authorities to to try to find collective solutions. That's often pretty tough to pull off."

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