by Leon Younger
General Partner, Leon Younger and PROS
Leon Younger is the General Partner of Leon Younger and PROS, a consulting company specializing in sports, recreation and park organization developments. Younger has previously held positions as Director of Parks and Recreation in Indianapolis, Indiana; Executive Director of Lake Metroparks in Lake County, Ohio; and Director of Parks and Recreation in Jackson County, Missouri (Kansas City). He has led fundraising workshops and training for executive management, boards, community leaders, middle managers and supervisors across the United States, and in Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia.
Innovative funding for parks can come from a variety of places, but a community-based vision of improvements and enhancements is the first and most important step to increasing varied and alternative funding sources. To be successful, this vision of park enhancements must be deeply felt by the community, and established as their key priority. If the vision of park enhancements are tied into elements that matter in a particular community, such as economic development, quality of life improvements or increased property values, the community will be an even more effective partner. In addition, parks need to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood, and in situations where the makeup of a neighborhood has changed, you have to make changes for people to see ownership in the park. If the public doesn’t see themselves in a park project, you will never get their support.
Below are a few examples of how funding sources can be used more effectively:
Flexibility and Efficiency
The first important step in increasing funding is reducing inefficiency. One way of thinking about this, from a programming perspective is: If nobody uses a program service, get rid of it. Over time, assets like tennis and racquetball courts and some game fields, begin to fall apart because of lack of sustained interest. Like anything else, recreational activities have upcycles and downcycles. People grow out of activities. Facilities and events should be changed to reflect how people recreate. For example, many men drop out of organized competitive softball leagues around the age of 35. This is most likely because they stop being able to hit home runs. Smaller fields may keep more people interested for longer because people want a skill level they can play at competitively. Often, we make the mistake of forcing them to play at a skill level that is too high for them. The end result is that they stop playing. Some parks have made their soccer fields smaller — this allows for more “touches” on the ball. Others allow in-line skaters to play hockey on hard tennis courts.
Rigorous tracking of program lifecycles and capacity will help you understand where effort needs to be concentrated. Programs must be priced for return on investment, customer satisfaction and user return rates. These data can help form an argument to eliminate a program or reduce a service that has become institutionalized and eats up money because it is not well attended and is in its “downcycle.” Subsidy levels go up when programs are in their downcycles.
Do not underestimate a constituency’s ability to pay for a program or facility they value. Many demographic groups that we consider unable to pay may actually prefer to pay a small fee and give up the distinction of not having to pay. Also, the two age demographics with the most amount of discretionary income, seniors and youths aged 13-18, are usually treated as if neither one of them had any money to spend on recreation or leisure pursuits.
If the community values a park or recreation service, they will understand that there may be a price worth paying to keep certain resources open and available. Most park services, like swimming pools, are priced toward the twenty percent of the population who can’t pay for them instead of towards the eighty percent who can. Agencies should consider pricing certain services at a market rate and then finding ways of getting the other twenty percent who don’t have the ability to pay to utilize the facility through credits, scholarships, etc. For example, you might consider starting a “workreation” program where kids work in exchange for the use of facilities, such as pools or ballgames. This program gives “play dough” dollars that are work credits. There is nothing wrong with placing a value on a recreation experience.
In determining which elements can be used to produce income for a park, start with a commodity comparison. Take “junk food” commodities like soda or candy for example. Is going to a pool worth the price of a soda? Is it worth the price of a hat or the value of a pair of tennis shoes? Another rule of thumb is that a “recreation hour” in this country is worth about $3.50. A movie, for example, is 2 hours, at $7 a ticket. Golf is a four or five hour experience, which typically costs about $15-18 to play. The skating rink or the bowling alley is usually a three-dollar-an-hour experience. If your pool is not worth this than you have not been able to articulate to the public the value of that experience.
Every community has all the right leaders and support groups that can solve every park problem if you can engage them. It’s important to articulate that in a way that puts these groups on the offensive, not the defensive. In Indianapolis, park staff that lived in a particular neighborhood were delegated to be an ambassador to that community. They are sent to local meetings to articulate the park department’s case. They are able to sell the value of the park enhancements, because they live there!
Most park professionals know what the problems are in their system, but they don’t have the know-how to effectively communicate or leverage community resources. However, people in every community aspire to be sought after, and if parks departments and community parks organizations know how to approach them, people will always give. The mechanisms that allow people to invest in a park system have to be created. One key challenge we’ve faced is to convince local unions not to be threatened by greater community involvement in park maintenance and security particularly for smaller parks. We had to make them see that the value of neighborhood involvement. That it would change their job and actually reduce the overall maintenance cost and their time commitments. Most unions become happy with community partnerships because their professional skills are used better in the parks to which they are dedicated, and the communities that are taking care of the smaller parks, are preventing the union workers from being spread too thinly over the park system, doing work they were unhappy doing in the first place.
What is a community’s vision? In Indianapolis, we started by sitting down one-on-one with 100 different community leaders and asking them: What do you like about the parks in general? What would make them better? What would make you proud of the parks? What would you commit, to try to enhance them?
In Indianapolis, pools were geared towards competitive swimming. Most of them were large and deep. However, we discovered that 80% of pool users were spending their time in less than four feet of water, spending time with their families. So we converted many of our competitive facilities into shallow funpools, which we then called “family fun centers.”
Neighborhood projects can start small, for example with spring and fall cleanups of a park. In Indianapolis, one strategy was to simply set baseline standards for maintenance, and then tell neighborhood groups that if they wanted to exceed the baseline standard, they could go out and raise the money and get that higher level of service.
Parks can solve lots of problems. The first thing I do is ask members of the community, “What do you want this park to solve?”