Sacramento has turned a problematic central city park into a vibrant town square with careful event planning and concessions management. While the city covers the park's basic maintenance costs, a public/private partnership concentrates on creating worthwhile programs and activities in the park and running the concessions at a profit. This allows them to put their earnings back into park enhancements and services.
In the early 1980's, the city of Sacramento, California began a downtown revitalization effort. A new library and galleria, as well as an office tower, were planned for the area surrounding Plaza Park, an underused one square block downtown park.
This was not the first time the park's role and landscape had been rethought. In the late 1960's, a redesign of the park had failed: a new layout had attempted to remove the undesireables, but placed no emphasis on attracting new users. Benches and trees had been removed to discourage loitering, leaving the park was exposed to the sun and uninviting. This time, 20 years later, the city tried to make the downtown park a "town square" that would attract thousands of downtown employees, as well as residents and visitors.
The first step was taken by the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, which committed $213,000 for park redesign and event planning. A farmer's market, new programs, and special events were begun. Users began to trickle back into Plaza Park. Then a plan was developed and a process undertaken to understand how the park itself could be improved.
Encouraged by the new activity, the general managing partner of a new office building adjacent to the park contributed an additional $250,000 for park improvements, including the establishment of food services, lighting redesign, and community outreach programs. With its new funds, the office building management team, with the Housing and Redevelopment Agency and the City of Sacramento, renovated an existing restroom facility in the park into a cafe. The city then turned the management of the park over to The Downtown Partnership, a non-profit corporation, to create and manage park programs and activities, including the concessions.
Revenues and/or lease payments from the cafe (the city gets a percentage of the gross sale receipts if they reach a certain amount) go directly into the Downtown Partnership where the money is used for basic enhancements and to bring events into Plaza Park. The cafe generates about $12,000 per year for the partnership. The partnership also runs a Friday night concert series in the park that highlights Sacramento area musicians. Despite the high costs of putting on a concert, the program makes money, due mostly to the ability of the partnership to sell beer and wine at the event. The concert series, now in its seventh year, can bring in as much as $40,000 a year, and attracts thousands of residents to the park every week.
Additionally, the Downtown Partnership brought hot food vendors and bakeries into the burgeoning weekly farmers market. The group receives fees from these new vendors, but doesn't require the farmers to pay, beyond their city-negotiated license agreement. This concession makes about $13,000 per year for the partnership.
The partnership also keeps the adjacent commercial district clean and patrolled and provides retail recruitment and marketing services through an assessment on local businesses which amounts to slightly under $2 million per year. However, none of this money goes into park programs. Concessions (beer and wine at the weekly concert series) are the single largest source of revenue in Plaza Park for the Downtown Partnership outside of the assessment.
The cafe in Plaza Park, known as Cafe Soleil, is the highest revenue-generator per square foot in Sacramento. It is a simple equation: the cafe serves fresh salads and sandwiches to the many downtown employees who now frequent the park at lunchtime in pleasant weather. Crowds fill the park on the day of the farmers market, which generates income without putting further burden on the farmers. Other activities, funded by the income generated by concessions, include special events, such as children's festivals. The Partnership uses local musicians for the concert series, which draws 3,000-7,000 people every week and earns enough revenue to pay for other activities and services, including reseeding the lawn after it has been trampled by the concertgoers.
The partnership wanted to create a restaurant or cafe in the park to serve as a "destination" for the many people working in the area, and to act as a security presence. The city conducted a lengthy search for, and found, the right concession manager: a restaurateur who had a great deal of experience running similar concessions, enough financial stability to weather the initial start up, and an understanding of the client base it was serving.
Plaza Park is now a hub of city life, without a dramatic inflow of new city funds. The public/private partnership, given full authority over park programs, has concentrated on creating a pleasant environment and interesting public programs while providing park concessions that meet user's needs and contribute to the partnership's ability to plan and execute programs.