The Great Recession’s Profound Impact on Parks and Recreation

February 6, 2018, Feature, by Nicholas Pitas, Ph.D., Austin Barrett, Ph.D., Andrew Mowen, Ph.D., and Kevin Roth, Ph.D.

2018 February Feature The Great Recession Impact on Parks and Recreation 410

Last fall, NRPA released the results from a study that shows local elected and appointed government officials see park and recreation funding as being fully discretionary and as a luxury. The study, commissioned by NRPA and conducted by a team of Pennsylvania State University (PSU) researchers, found that local government officials see parks and recreation as a moderately important government service that solves some, but not all, of the issues vexing their community. Most notably, local government officials do not view parks and recreation as contributing to the solution of their most important issues: retaining and recruiting new businesses for their region.

The impact of this perception gap is significant. While most local government officials agree parks and recreation is well worth the dollars spent on it, they openly acknowledge that they target these agencies for large budget cuts when their city, town or county faces fiscal pressures. In fact, the scenario presented in that study is not an abstract hypothetical result, as evidenced by the sharp economic downturn at the end of the past decade, which provided a real-life example.

The Current Context
The Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 weighed heavily on funding for all local government services, but no service bore the brunt of budget cuts more than park and recreation agencies. They suffered both in terms of actual dollars spent and in disproportionate reductions in funding relative to other local government services. Furthermore, park and recreation funding has been slow to recover since the end of the recession, suggesting that a more permanent structural shift has occurred.

This is the main takeaway from work by PSU researchers (see “First in Our Hearts But Not in Our Pocket Books: Trends in Local Governmental Financing for Parks and Recreation from 2004 to 2014” by A.G. Barrett, N.A Pitas and A.J. Mowen in the Journal of Park and Recreation Administration). They used U.S. Census Bureau data to replicate analyses by Drs. John Crompton and Andrew Kaczynski, who reported on spending trends from the second half of the 20th century into the new millennium. Those earlier studies found that park and recreation agencies were the recipients of substantial increases in funding as communities across the United States invested in park infrastructure, operational spending and staffing. However, the seismic economic shifts resulting from the Great Recession represented a dramatic change in public finances, highlighting the need for an updated review/analysis.

The key takeaway from the new research is startling. The data illustrates a clear divide in the financial support for parks and recreation between the pre- and post-recession periods. While parks and recreation received significant investment in the late 20th century, investments in local park and recreation services nationwide dramatically waned during and after the Great Recession.

Parks and Rec Spending vs. Other Public Services
Local park and recreation spending decreased by 7.2 percent after adjusting for inflation from 2003 to 2013 (Note: All dollar figures presented in this article are adjusted to 2014 values to control for the impact of inflation during the period of the analysis). This is in stark contrast to the 63.3 percent spending growth experienced from 1989 to 2003. In the years leading up to the recession, park and recreation spending increased substantially, growing 14.7 percent from 2003 to 2008. But, this trend reversed during and after the recession, as spending plummeted by 21.2 percent from 2009 to 2013.

When compared to other local governmental services, this decrease was especially poignant. For example, in 2013, park and recreation spending accounted for 1.9 percent of total local government expenditures, down from 2.2 percent in 2000. Of the 10 local public services analyzed, only corrections (1.8 percent) and libraries (0.7 percent) received a smaller percentage of local government expenditures in 2013. On the flip side, local governments dedicated far larger percentages of their spending to education (42.3 percent), hospitals/health (9.6 percent) and transportation (6.3 percent).

Examining spending levels paints a picture of which services appointed and elected local government officials view as “essential” and which they see as a “luxury.” Although local government officials may sing the praises of parks and recreation, these are the very services targeted for the deepest and most dramatic cuts when the economic situation necessitates government belt-tightening.

Investment in Parks and Recreation vs. Capital Expenditures
Total expenditures on parks and recreation rose from approximately $35.5 billion in 2000 to $40.7 billion in 2008, before falling to $32.5 billion by 2013. Closer analysis finds that a sharp drop in capital spending largely accounted for the decline in total expenditures.

Capital expenditures fell from $12 billion in 2000 to $11.8 billion in 2008, before taking a more dramatic plunge to $6.6 billion in 2013. Capital spending also slumped as a proportion of total park and recreation agency spending, from 33.9 percent in 2000 to a mere 20.3 percent in 2013. Because capital projects often take multiple years to complete and are likely contingent on bond referenda, the precipitous drop in capital expenditures might suggest a lack of optimism and confidence in the future on the part of local officials and park and recreation agencies. This is unfortunate because a recession often is an opportune time to make capital improvements for public entities with financial flexibility, as the price of materials and labor and the cost of borrowing are likely to be depressed.

While operational expenditures rose from $24.3 billion in 2000 to $28.9 billion in 2008, they pulled back during and after the recession to $25.9 billion by 2013. Relative to capital expenditures, operational expenditures accounted for an increasing proportion of total park and recreation agency spending, rising from 68.6 percent in 2000 to 79.7 percent in 2013.

Transformation of the Park and Rec Workforce
Perhaps the most striking finding from this study was the sharp transformation of the workforce at local park and recreation agencies. Even though local park and recreation agencies added 42,212 jobs from 2000 to 2014, a revolutionary change was brewing in the field. First, most of the job growth occurred before the Great Recession, with only 3,217 of those jobs added after 2007. This represented a mere 0.8 percent increase in park and recreation employment during a time when the U.S. population had grown 4.8 percent.

Underlying those figures is a shift from full-time to part-time employment, a trend that started during the 1980s. From 2000 to 2014, park and recreation agencies added 45,382 part-time jobs, while the number of full-time employees fell by a total of 3,170 positions. Whereas full-time positions accounted for approximately 47.5 percent of total local park and recreation jobs in 2000, the percentage shrank to 41.3 percent by 2013.

Building budget pressures and the shrinking count of full-time park and recreation professionals in the public sector have important ramifications on the way park and recreation agencies are delivering services to their constituents. Even more so, this shift will have major implications about the job responsibilities of tomorrow’s park and recreation leaders and how agencies will recruit and retain their best employees.

Narrowing the Perceptions Gap About Parks and Recreation
While it is not a new development that park and recreation agencies must compete for funding against many other local government services, the stakes are greater today as many cities, towns and counties remain constrained by limited tax receipts (both because of political pressure to keep tax rates low and a tax base that may not have recovered from the ravages of the last recession). Local government officials who view parks and recreation as a “nice to have” luxury have been slower to restore park funding relative to other services they view as more “vital,” such as, education, public safety and transportation.

One step toward this goal of closing the perceptions gap is to demonstrate how parks and recreation contributes to recruiting and retaining businesses — a top concern for local officials. Despite their perception, a solid, well-maintained park and trail network, combined with programming that serves all members of the community, sharply improve a region’s quality of life. Business leaders place significant weight on an area’s quality of life when they consider where to move their company’s headquarters or to build new facilities. Later this spring, NRPA will be releasing a new research study that highlights success stories, where park and recreation leaders are active participants in their regions’ business development activities.

Identifying and Securing New, Innovative Funding Sources
While park and recreation leaders need to continue making the case for greater and more stable funding from their local government, their efforts may not sufficiently fill the funding shortfall afflicting many park and recreation agencies. Ongoing budgetary pressures, competition from other local government services and the inevitability of another recession in the future highlight the need for agencies to identify, and successfully retain, new sources of funding.

Some communities may have an opportunity to press for a dedicated revenue stream, such as a percentage of property or sales tax receipts earmarked to support park and recreation operating and/or capital expenditures. Agencies are identifying new opportunities to generate revenue from their operations — although ensuring services are financially accessible and affordable to all members of the community can pose a challenge. In other cases, there may be opportunities for public-private partnerships or grant opportunities from government entities and nonprofit foundations that could help close the funding gap.

Tomorrow’s successful park and recreation leaders will become acquainted with the advantages and disadvantages of each funding source and identify a funding plan that makes most sense for their agency. More so, these leaders will develop productive working relationships with government and private-sector partners so they can effectively execute their financial plans.

Training Leaders for Tomorrow
The growing percentage of part-time workers in the park and recreation profession has significant implications for both employers and educators. Park and recreation agencies have a broader mission with more responsibilities while having access to fewer full-time professionals to deliver on the promise. Future park and recreation leaders will have to be more agile and flexible as they wear more hats in their day-to-day role. They will need to be more adept in fiscal management (including how to tap new sources of funding) and enhance their persuasion skills so they can advocate for parks and recreation to government leaders, potential funders and the public. Universities educating tomorrow’s park and recreation leaders should be evolving their curriculums to prepare their students for the new reality of tighter funding and fewer staff resources.

However, in many cases, today’s and tomorrow’s leaders may not have a park and recreation college degree on their résumé. They may come with educational backgrounds as diverse as the public they serve. As a result, NRPA and other organizations have a critical role to play to ensure park and recreation professionals are best prepared to meet the future changes and innovations facing the profession and society. This means making sure new professionals entering the field have access to educational events, webinars and conference sessions that fill in present and future knowledge gaps they may have about parks and recreation so the industry may benefit from their diverse background and experience.

Based on the most recent park and recreation expenditure data, parks and recreation clearly has not only borne the brunt fiscally from the Great Recession, but also the detrimental impact on budgets and staffing has continued years into the economic recovery. This suggests a more structural shift has occurred, and park and recreation agencies could be subject to an even greater struggle to maintain funding into the future. Leaders need to act now to address this challenge to ensure all members of their communities will be able to enjoy the benefits of parks and recreation well into the future.

Nicholas Pitas, Ph.D.,  is a Post-Doctorate Fellow at Pennsylvania State University. Austin Barrett, Ph.D., is an Independent Scholar.  Andrew Mowen, Ph.D., is Professor of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management at Pennsylvania State University. Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research.