The 2014 NRPA Parks and Recreation National Database Report states that across most municipalities, budgets have tightened over the past few years, impacting how parks and recreation departments secure needed funding. Operating expenses may have remained constant, but direct revenues have decreased. In the “good old days,” taxes adequately funded maintenance and capital expenditures. When that wasn’t enough, departments added user fees. Pretty soon those funding sources no longer kept pace with the ever-increasing expenses.
Citizens clamor for better services, but they don’t want to pay increased taxes or user fees. Recreation Management magazine reports that “recent economic conditions are leading many parks and recreation agencies to cut their budgets, but at the same time, more and more Americans may be taking advantage of the services offered through those agencies.” On top of that, Congress has not lived up to its promise to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Catherine Nagel, City Park Alliance’s Executive Director, sums it up: “It seems there is a bit of a disconnect between the needs of the country and people’s desire to have a park within walking distance, and the federal allocation of funds to make that a reality.”
I am personally torn between the need for additional revenue and the upkeep needs of aging and damaged park facilities. Every department wants new and improved facilities, but I think they need to focus their efforts on adequately maintaining and repairing what they have. If citizens don’t want to pay for needed maintenance and repairs through taxes and/or user fees, then I question whether they truly need or even deserve them. If your department cannot afford to maintaining existing parks and facilities, don’t build anything new.
Selling the Naming Rights of Parks
Most parks and recreation departments remain the bastard child in the budget process. They are the first to get cut when times are bad, and the last to receive new revenue when times get better. This has led some departments to consider following the path of sports stadiums and arenas in selling the naming rights of their parks to corporate sponsors. This is a slippery slope that we need to climb with our eyes wide open. I support advertising fees at facilities, such as signs on the outfield fences at ball diamonds and corporate sponsors for special events and programs. It’s easy to change when the sponsor withdraws its funding. But cities should not let the quest for additional dollars make them lose focus on their parks and recreation priorities. Parks are a sacred trust we must maintain in order to pass them on to future generations.
If communities consider the sponsorship/naming rights road, such as Oakland, California, and Fairfax County, Virginia, they need to have policies in place that clearly outline what is an acceptable sponsor, and what responsible group makes the final decision on the sponsorship. If they get major corporate and private sponsors for facilities, what happens when the sponsor stop paying to maintain that facility? What happens when the facility needs another round of major improvements? Will the original sponsor pony up additional revenue, or will the department be back to square one and have to find a new sponsor or multiple ones? Will they keep the old sponsor’s name on the facility, take it off and add the new sponsor’s name, or use both names? What happens when the potential sponsor promotes a particular facility that is important to them, but isn’t a city priority? Big money has influenced and often tainted the political process on many governmental levels. Nothing in politics is ever straightforward, so we have to make sure we do what is best for the city, if at all possible.
About the Author
Mark Hall Dunlap, GPC, is a Grants Professional Services partner with eCivis and the Owner/Principal at Dunlap Grantworks. In his career, he has written successful 144 proposals totaling more than $25 million. He led the City of Lenexa, Kansas, to become the tenth agency in the United States to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Parks and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA).