An innovative public-private partnership is spearheading the restoration of several of the parks and parkways in Louisville that were designed more than a century ago by Frederick Law Olmsted. Established in partnership with the Jefferson County Parks Department, the Conservancy has developed a comprehensive master plan and raised $6 million for improvements to reverse the decline of the 2,400-acre Olmsted legacy.
The Conservancy was founded in 1989 to build upon the efforts of the Louisville Friends of Olmsted Parks. The Friends, which had raised awareness of the parks through its program and advocacy activities, had earlier appointed a task force to study the success of the Central Park Conservancy. After reviewing the task force report, the Mayor recommended creating the Louisville Olmsted Park Conservancy as a planning and funding partnership between the city and private sector. The city provided $1 million in seed money to establish the Conservancy and fund the master plan for Shawnee, Iroquois and Cherokee Parks and parkways. The Conservancy was incorporated as a nonprofit entity with a board with 33 trustees. The Friends continue to operate as an advocacy organization with a grassroots orientation.
Like many partnerships, the Conservancy’s organizational structure has evolved over time. Initially, the parks department agreed to provide an employee to serve as Executive Director of the Conservancy provided the Conservancy footed the bill. But the position is now a dual one: the Executive Director of the Conservancy splits her time as Assistant Director of the Parks Department in charge of Planning and Design with half her salary paid by the Conservancy, half by the city. She supervises a public staff of two landscape architects and, at the Conservancy, a director of development and administrative assistant.
According to a master operating agreement, the Conservancy is to raise funds and visibility for the park system, and advise the Mayor on appropriate policies for its restoration and maintenance. Although the agreement technically permits the city to dissolve the Conservancy in the event of a conflict or failure by the Conservancy to raise funds, the Conservancy’s trustees share this power equally.
With city support and funds raised from its board, the Conservancy hired Andropogon Associates of Philadelphia to develop a master plan that recommended $50 million in park improvements. The plan, which involved input from 600 citizens and review of current user needs, recommended restoring historic open spaces and vistas, refurbishing trails, developing new sports areas and support facilities and rehabilitating the parks’ woodlands and natural systems. The plan emphasized the importance of management and stewardship and envisioned an important role for volunteer and community involvement.
The Conservancy has enjoyed early fundraising success and strong support from the public sector. Since 1993, the group has raised $3.5 million in philanthropic and public funds to match a $2.5 million grant, and is nearly finished raising another $1 million to match a $600,000 grant. The group’s fundraising has triggered an increase in the city’s annual capital spending for parks, from $500,000 to about $1 million. The Conservancy’s productive relationship with the public sector also helped to lure Bridgid Sullivan, the respected former head of Milwaukee’s Parks Department, to become Director of Parks.
Despite its active fundraising, the Conservancy has played a more limited role as project manager. Instead, it grants funds to the city, which hires contractors and is overseeing current improvements at three parks. The group also eschews more aggressive advocacy — something it prefers to delegate to the Friends, which successfully spearheaded the successful permanent closing of a traffic lane for pedestrian and bicycle use in one of the Olmsted parks.
The Conservancy attributes its fundraising success to a strong plan and partnership with the public sector. “The city became a big ally in our efforts” said Mike Triebsch, Director of Development. “Their involvement reassured funders who were looking for greater public commitment.” The group also learned the value of levering foundation support to attract more corporate funds, which will comprise the bulk of its current campaign. The increased funding has led to higher expectations and increased training of parks staff within the public sector. It’s also led some funders to express increased interest in a maintenance endowment to preserve improvements.
With the first phase of construction just beginning on Cherokee, Iroquois and Shawnee parks, the Conservancy continues to forge ahead with its fundraising. Last fall, the group reached an agreement with the Louisville Friends of Olmsted Parks on a cooperative membership campaign. The Friends, which raises about $1,500 from 200 members, and the Conservancy are planning to solicit new members by mail, meetings and a new newsletter. The Friends will retain the first $7,000 raised; the group anticipates reaching as many as 400 new members.
Susan M. Rademacher, Executive Director, Louisville Olmsted Park Conservancy, 502-456-8125