by William Smith

Director, Parks and Recreation Department
Houston, Texas

From Parks As Community Places: Boston, 1997, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute’s annual conference.

Bill Smith has organized a series of weekend events in Houston’s parks called Fundays which include music, games, and food concessions, attracting children and their parents from all over Houston to neighborhood parks across the city.

In 1993, when I became director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, we had very low usage of our neighborhood parks due to crime and security issues. Graffiti was rampant. We had very poor maintenance not only of the grounds but also the facilities. We had fairly low staff morale and performance, and we had few to no programs. Although we rectified many of those things, we knew we needed something that would attract families – some type of special event that would bring families in and give them the message that it was safe to come back into the park, that the park was well maintained, and that there were things for them to do. The mayor and I came up with an idea called “Funday in the Park,” where we arranged for 20 to 30 special events in neighborhood parks on Sunday afternoons during the spring and summer, moving from park to park every weekend. Last year we did 26 Fundays, and we had a total attendance of 165,000 people in parks that were previously little used.

We contracted with a private entertainment company, Epic Special Events, to run Funday, a name for which they own the trademark. They provide inflatable games like basketball shooting and soccer; live music; and food and non-alcoholic drinks. It’s about a five hour entertainment package. We have a five year contract with them for about $270,000 a year, and we split the concessions and sponsorship with them so the net cost is about $200,000 for us.

We think that about 25% to 33% of the Funday audience is not from the neighborhood where that park is located. Families can call in on a telephone line we have set up, or they see the publicity we put out, and they simply follow it around because they have young children, and children love it. We also tailor the food and the music to the ethnicity of the neighborhood. That’s very important.

Subsequent to Funday we started a Saturday Neighborhood Festival Program, which is a somewhat scaled down, less expensive Funday. Ten of these festivals cost about $40,000 out of the operating budget. Average attendance is about 2,000 per Saturday afternoon. The Saturday Festival Program is done in-house, and there’s not quite as much publicity. The feel of the Saturday Festival is entirely different than the Funday because the community is very involved. The planning process takes about three to four months with each community. They pick the theme of the festival, the name of it, the entertainment, and they decide who’s going to provide the food and beverage. An important difference with Funday is that the neighborhood puts on the food booths and the beverages, and if they can get it all donated, of course, the gross becomes the net, and that money goes to the civic club or the park advisory committee. We do games, and we have bands, and we try to go to smaller parks with the Saturday neighborhood festival series than what we do with Funday.

One of the most important things about Funday and the Saturday Festival Program is the residual effect in the neighborhood of having those festivals in a local park. People come from all over that neighborhood because it’s such a wonderful attraction and they have so much fun that they keep coming back to the park afterwards. That’s the real critical thing.

“One of the most important things . . . is the residual effect in the neighborhood of having those festivals in a local park.”

Just some simple arithmetic can tell you that if you take 165,000 people, and they come back three more times during the year to that same park or another park as a result of Funday or an event like that – you’ve got a half million people using the parks. That’s a pretty significant number to add to your park usage. Certainly it’s not a Band-Aid for other deficiencies that you have in your parks system. You’ve got to have safe and secure parks – you’ve got to have good staff – you’ve got to have good maintenance. You’ve got to cut the grass, get rid of the graffiti. You’ve got to have good programs. But for us, Funday was a very important signal to families that it’s okay to come back into the park. And I guarantee you they wouldn’t have come back as quickly as they came back if it hadn’t been for the tremendous attraction of this very valuable free entertainment that they received.