Greg A. Weitzel’s career as a park and recreation administrator has spanned more than 20 years—and in that time he has been awarded more than $15 million in federal, state, county, local, corporate, and foundation grants. The projects funded with those millions have ranged from master plans for multi-generational destination parks, to sustainable park and building design, to greenway and rail trail construction. When Weitzel, who currently heads Allentown, Pennsylvania’s, parks and recreation department, echoes the well-known saying that “all politics is local,” he speaks from hard-won advocacy experience.
Weitzel’s work as an NRPA volunteer influencing federal policy has led him to a critical insight: Park professionals are uniquely positioned to know what state and federal lawmakers’ constituents want. Those who find public policy and advocacy work intimidating, he insists, should remember that they represent a brain trust of expertise on American parks, recreation, and conservation. That brain trust is one that our legislators sorely need, Weitzel insists—and that brain trust has the potential to shape the future of parks in this country.
Could you describe the public policy work you have done as a volunteer working alongside NRPA?
Over the last decade, I’ve worked closely with NRPA’s great staff of public policy professionals to advocate for full and dedicated funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund—especially the state assistance program. And I’ve lobbied for transportation enhancements like bike and pedestrian trails and programs such as Safe Routes to School. I’m also a big supporter of the Urban Revitalization and Livable Communities Act, the No Child Left Inside Act, and was honored to work on President Obama’s America's Great Outdoors (AGO) Initiative.
However, my advocacy for parks, recreation and conservation began at an early age in Lititz, Pennsylvania. I remember that our old recreation center was in very poor condition. Serving as a student leader, I worked with the mayor and city council to help build a new center. I’m sure they remember me strongly encouraging them to build a bigger pool and provide more gym space!
After many years of service, I was recently nominated to serve as chairman of the Pennsylvania Recreation and Park Society Governmental Affairs Committee (GAC). The GAC has been a key advocate for state parks and forests and recently helped protect the environment from the impacts of natural gas drilling. Currently, we are working to save the Keystone Fund (our dedicated park, recreation, conservation, and library fund) from elimination in the state budget. We certainly have a lot of tough work ahead of us, and we are thankful to the NRPA staff who have been very helpful with solid advice on how to win this campaign.
Are there any myths or misconceptions that you see among park professionals about the nature and purpose of national-level public policy work?
You hear all the time, “I’m too busy and my one voice will not make a difference.” My experience has shown me that if you just take ten minutes to send that email, write that letter, or just pick up the phone and call your legislators when an important vote is being considered, you will be heard.
I also believe some professionals in our field are intimidated by national-level public policy work; yet, at the local level, we are already expert advocates for parks, recreation, and conservation when we champion new policies and request funds for our programs and facilities. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill coined the saying, “All politics is local” and that is so true. That’s why we make great lobbyists in Washington—because despite all the partisan politics, special interests, and gridlock, there are few people better equipped than park professionals to remind elected representatives what’s really important to their constituents.
Can you share any grass-roots success stories with us?
I can remember multiple times when an important vote was about to occur and I was able to influence policy-makers with a simple phone call. Legislators will tell you that they simply don’t have the time to read every bill or know all the details. That’s why our advocacy work is so very important: We have a responsibility to educate our legislators on how parks, recreation and conservation funding helps preserve, protect, and enhance our local communities and our nation.