From the Director’s Chair

May 1, 2016, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Part of being a leader is mastering the ability to meet challenges and conceptualize solutions. This is never done in a vacuum — collaborators, supporters, partners, advisers and even outside municipal departments or nearby agencies often lend insight and experience to meet an outstretched hand. Directors at some of our largest urban agencies have more than a passing familiarity with seeking support for their initiatives. In this month’s column, we reached out to Sara Hensley, director of the Austin, Texas, Parks and Recreation Department; Brian Zimmerman, CEO of Cleveland Metroparks; and Amy Phuong, commissioner of the city of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation to ask the following question: Who or what has been your biggest champion for increased support of your agency, whether through planning, programming, financing or otherwise? Following are their insights:

Sara Hensley

Austin Parks and Recreation Department’s biggest champion(s) is, by far, the partners/partnerships we have nurtured with the community, community groups, conservancies and foundations. We are so fortunate to work with citizen coalitions that not only support us through volunteerism, but also speak up and show up to voice what the community needs are and how it ultimately relates to the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. 

The many conservancies that have been formed over the past three years indicate that there is more interest to assist us — not just advocating for more money, but putting their money where it can best serve the community. We work with the various groups to define the parameters that are needed and that they could support. Each effort is different and we mutually develop a formal agreement, defining our specific job functions and responsibilities. 

The future for Austin Parks and Recreation is wrapped in the success of these partnerships. There will never be enough resources to serve Austin’s growing needs. However, due to the hard work in developing better and ongoing relationships with our citizens through community coalitions, associations, foundations and conservancies, we have more focused voices and support. This in turn allows us to be more successful in serving areas that may have been underserved due to lack of adequate resources. We like to refer to this as the Trifecta: the department wins, the city wins and, most importantly, the community wins. 

Brian Zimmerman

Our biggest champion has been the community at-large. On November 5, 2013, voters gave a 70 percent approval rating to a tax levy that provides the lion’s share of Cleveland Metroparks’ budget each year. The 10-year measure will financially carry us through to 2024 and is a direct reflection of the public’s support for our mission of conservation, education and recreation. That support has resulted in our ability to continue to reclaim Cleveland’s lakefront, to the benefit of all residents of Northeast Ohio.

Our efforts began in earnest in 2013. Cleveland Metroparks’ Lakefront Reservation now includes Edgewater Park on the city’s West Side, Edgewater Marina, Edgewater Yacht Club, the portion of Gordon Park north of Interstate 90, the East 55th Street Marina, a former state maintenance facility on East 72nd Street, the Forest City Yacht Club, the Inter-City Yacht Club and the Lakeside Yacht Club.

Cleveland Metroparks is also spearheading the total renovation of Cleveland’s historic lakefront Coast Guard Station — along with several community partners — which is an icon on the ever-changing landscape of Lake Erie.

Amy Phuong

Without question, Mayor Kasim Reed has been the city of Atlanta Department of Parks and Recreation’s biggest champion. When his administration began in 2010, Atlanta was in the midst of the worst financial crisis in more than 80 years. Despite this reality, under Mayor Reed’s leadership, the Department of Parks and Recreation invested an additional $1 million in parks that year. We also reopened all previously shuttered recreation centers and formed public-private partnerships to invest $5 million in helping Atlanta’s youth realize their full potential. Now, more than 3,500 young people annually receive leadership development training, participate in modern technology courses such as coding, and experience true mentorship in our Centers of Hope.

Mayor Reed’s support didn’t stop there. Our agency received an additional $3.5 million dollars in this fiscal year and $23.5 million dollars (from the 2015 Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond program) to rebuild the Martin Luther King, Jr. Natatorium in the Historic King District. In the coming months, our agency has been tasked to expand our system and services to ensure every resident has access to green space and recreational opportunities, especially in our most underserved neighborhoods. One example of this is the Bellwood Quarry, which the city purchased to convert for water storage. We will invest $250 million to develop the 300 acres surrounding the reservoir and transform it into the largest park in Atlanta. The park will feature hiking and biking trails, innovative green infrastructure, baseball fields, open meadows and an amphitheater. 

With Mayor Reed as our champion, we will continue to create exceptional spaces and enrich the lives of residents who utilize our amenities. 


Samantha Bartram, Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine