Colorado Springs, Colorado made national headlines and was featured on Public Radio International’s “This American Life” in 2012 as a striking example of a community struggling to balance ideological values of smaller government and low taxes with the hard reality of discontinuing basic services. Colorado Springs became infamous for locking public restrooms, shutting down public pools and recreation centers, and letting the park grass die from lack of water.
Colorado Springs’ is a comeback story, from the shutdown of parks and services to being identified as a top-five most desirable city to live in by US News and World Report and home to Garden of the Gods Park, named the No. 1 park in the country by TripAdvisor. It is now a community with an exciting plan for the future and supporters to help make this renaissance a reality.
During the downturn in the economy, the Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department experimented with a variety of approaches to manage a one-year, 80 percent reduction in its budget. Since then, the department has regained some funding and is learning from its experimentation with contracting services, nonprofit partnerships, special districts, utilizing volunteers and “friends groups,” fundraising and more. The Colorado Springs experience provides an excellent example of learning from challenges and creating new opportunities. A number of specific areas highlight how the Colorado Springs Parks Department has evolved to meet the needs of the community in an effective, creative manner.
The parks department has a long history of working with an active and engaged community of more than 5,000 volunteers who assist with programs and stewardship activities. Their combined efforts resulted in more than 158,000 volunteer hours in 2015, an 8 percent increase from 2014. Additionally, many of the large regional parks and cultural sites have friends groups that assist staff with event coordination, programs, stewardship activities and fundraising. These friends groups became caretakers of their respective sites during the department’s years of reduced staffing and funding. Over time, even though parks department funding has increased, the passion and commitment of Colorado Springs volunteers continues, allowing newly regained resources to go even further.
The department’s design and development group has become even more focused on sustainable maintenance operations to ensure available resources are utilized as effectively and efficiently as possible. An excellent example is John Venezia Park, a new community park currently under construction — the first in the past 10 years. Of its 30 developed acres, less than 2.5 acres are irrigated turf, which significantly reduces typical maintenance needs. Three full-size soccer fields outfitted with artificial turf will create a year-round playing surface adaptable to a wide range of sports that will increase the revenue potential of the facility. State-of-the-art LED lighting will be used in all the buildings and throughout the complex. Additionally, water quality basins will be included to collect water from non-permeable surfaces, directing it toward areas of landscaped plantings. Nooks and crannies that often create areas of unintended maintenance have been sought out and thoughtfully modified or eliminated to help reduce their potential demands on maintenance staff.
With 58 percent of Colorado Springs Parks Department’s maintenance operating budget devoted to the cost of water, it was imperative that steps be taken to limit water use and be sure the resource was leveraged effectively. More than 10 percent of the bluegrass that was in the parks system in 2009 has been replaced with drought-tolerant native grass that requires considerably less water and reduced mowing cycles, while still providing the aesthetic look of a park. In partnership with Colorado Springs Utilities, capital investments were made to upgrade the irrigation system to include “smart” controllers, giving park technicians greater control, flexibility and understanding of the operations of the irrigation systems they manage. Also, a pilot program created by Colorado Springs Utilities incentivized the parks department to conservatively manage the water used for irrigation. By watering at 80 percent of the recommended rates for bluegrass, the department was able to shave as much as 40 percent off of its anticipated water bill. The pilot conservation rate program gave the department the necessary time to upgrade its irrigation systems and change the culture and skillsets of maintenance staff members to one that positions water management and conservation as high priorities. All Colorado Springs Parks Department maintenance technicians are now Certified Irrigators through the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado and several have become Certified Irrigation Auditors. Although the pilot program has expired and the 2016 budget allows staff to water at the recommended rates for bluegrass for the first time since 2008, lessons learned from the downturn, upgrades to irrigation systems and investments in staff training mean that every penny spent for water is done so as efficiently as possible.
The Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department has successfully employed a variety of strategies to build community trust, develop successful partnerships and create a defensible citizen-supported economic case regarding the community value of parks. It has also implemented a variety of financial and operational strategies to meet its vision of building community and preserving its legacy to make Colorado Springs the finest place to live and visit.
Karen Palus, CPRP, CYSA, is the Director of the Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department.