Park Privatization Issues Challenge Public Parks

December 31, 2013, Department, by Barbara Tulipane, CAE

Barbara Tulipane, NRPA's president and CEO, discusses the benefits and challenges park agencies face when they accept private money for public parks.We all know that politics and religion are considered taboo subjects for dinner conversation, and now we can add another: the subject of park privatization.  In fact, three years ago when I casually mentioned that I had invited the principal of a firm specializing in “privatizing” parks to speak at an NRPA Congress session, my colleagues let me know that I was making a big mistake. To be fair, they did agree that the issue warranted discussion, but several strenuously objected to giving this person a “platform” where his ideas couldn’t be challenged. So, at the following Congress, we offered a panel discussion rather than a lecture that included the CEO of the privatization firm and several seasoned park directors.

While I had anticipated a fiery session full of disagreements and challenges, I was in fact surprised by how reasonable and responsible the discussion was. It turned out that the park and recreation directors were more in agreement with his approach than they were opposed. The tipping point for them was when they learned that his model included two important factors:  the public maintained ownership of the park and retained all decisionmaking authority, even if some decisions were delegated through well-crafted contractual agreements.

So, perhaps “park privatization” is not the right term to use for what is occurring in the industry because, after all, the ownership of the public park is not being transferred to a private entity, and in the best examples of successful public-private partnerships, the responsibility for the public good firmly remains in control of the public agency. More accurate descriptions are needed on how park and recreation agencies decide that some services are provided better — and more cheaply — by the private sector through contracts, concessions and service agreements. A term for projects that combine public and private management as well as funding is gaining widespread acceptance: “public-private partnership,” or its abbreviated term, “P3” projects.

But as more municipalities and jurisdictions adopt P3 models, several challenging questions still remain unanswered. Due to the uncertainty and inconsistency of future public funding, should we embrace this new approach as the model for public parks and recreation, or do we have an obligation to do more to challenge the premise that increasing private funding will always produce the greatest public good? For example, what does this new model mean for communities that are not attractive to private interests? Can we assume that the monies saved as a result of P3s will be reinvested in parks or used to provide more and better services in underserved communities? Does private funding alleviate the public’s responsibilities and their elected officials’ duties to use public funds for public good, or will it lead to reduced budgets that become more and more dependent on private capital?

Rarely are park and recreation professionals and advocates silent or indifferent when talking about park privatization or P3s. Some fear the loss of identity, the slipping away of critical decisionmaking authority, the exposure to unknown liabilities or even loss of jobs. On the opposite site, some impatiently say, “Don’t you get it? This is happening right now,” and they express frustration that we are not leading the way in developing new models to replace taxpayer-supported general funding for parks and recreation. To them, not responding to the challenges of reducing operating costs however possible, increasing revenues and creating sustainable funding mechanisms is to be like the ostrich sticking his head in the sand, ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the future.

Just as we must welcome new models to support public parks, we must also welcome discussion about the unintended consequences of these new ways without the fear of being labeled too insular, self-serving or uncaring about the future of parks and recreation. As the association that has represented park and recreation professionals for nearly a half-century, we remain the authoritative voice for the design, management and administration of public parks. We know what works and what is needed to make parks vital components of communities and what makes us the best providers of conservation, health and wellness, and social equity outcomes in every community.

We started the conversation about private funding of public parks with a series of articles in Parks & Recreation Magazine that offered differing points of view and different approaches to new models. And while some of you have responded by submitting comments, most of you have remained silent. It is clear that only by reaching out to understand new models for funding will we be prepared to use them to maximum advantage and public benefit. If we accept them unquestioningly and remain silent on the issues they present, we are in effect giving our tacit consent and accepting the outcomes they produce — good or bad.

A better alternative is for us to collectively give thoughtful consideration and guidance on new models of funding, operation and administration to ensure that everyone benefits. The American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration has announced an effort to provide guidance on the issues raised by P3s. Recent developments, including the release of an RFQ by the City of Indianapolis to outsource some or all of the management of their parks and recreation system, have focused attention on what these new models will bring to long-established park and recreation systems. NRPA looks forward to contributing to the Academy’s efforts, and we invite your help and participation in this effort.

Barbara Tulipane, CAE, President and CEO