NRPA Talks Park Funding at Seattle Innovation Lab

November 2, 2018, Feature, by Gina Mullins-Cohen

2018 November Feature Seattle Innovation Lab 410

Highlighting the political challenges associated with voter-backed P&R financing

Park and recreation professionals from around the country converged on Washington state for NRPA’s Seattle Innovation Lab, on August 10, 2018. The conference theme, “#Winning: The Art of Getting Voters to Open Their Wallets for Parks,” focused on best practices and valuable resource tools for securing dedicated funding for parks. What’s more, key thought leaders presented their firsthand accounts of how their park agency has navigated its way through the politics of voter-supported park and recreation funding. As an example, Seattle Parks and Recreation shared its own case study, which chronicled the passage of a special park district in 2014.

The event kicked off on Wednesday evening with a welcome reception, providing attendees with an opportunity to meet and network with their colleagues. The educational sessions got underway the next morning at the Seattle Central Library. NRPA Vice President of Urban and Government Affairs Kevin O’Hara gave opening remarks before welcoming Christopher Williams, interim superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation, and the first group of speakers.

Seattle Park District Case Study
During the panel discussion, “The Seattle Parks Legacy – Passing Proposition 1,” Williams was joined by Thatcher Bailey, president and CEO, Seattle Parks Foundation, and Ken Bounds, former superintendent, Seattle Parks and Recreation. The panelists presented an overview of the Seattle Park District ballot measure and what it took to generate Seattle-voter approval. They also touched on the structural challenges facing the park and recreation agency during the early 2000s — such as working with slashed budgets as a result of a down economy; competing against the needs of police, fire and human services during down cycles; and managing increasing costs combined with decreasing tax revenues and smaller budget allocation to parks and recreation.

By the mid-2010s and after years of budget cuts, the park agency determined that the time was right to make a change. Seattle had just welcomed a newly elected mayor, while the Seattle Parks Foundation was laying the groundwork for a ballot measure and providing the organization with the capacity to campaign. Notably, elected leaders and park advocates alike emphasized the notion that this special park district creation would focus on maintaining the existing park and recreation infrastructure, rather than on a dramatic, shiny, new expansion or signature projects. The speakers also outlined the methods the city used to address community concerns. Some of the steps taken included the park department completing an 18-month Strategic Plan process to determine needs, establishing the first six-year spending plan, establishing a Community Oversight Committee and ensuring the current level of general fund support plus inflation. In addition, the city developed an interlocal agreement, ensured that all funds would go to Seattle Parks and Recreation, as well as agreed that the City Council serve as the Governing Board. On August 4, 2014, Seattle voters went to the polls and narrowly passed the ballot measure.

Win, Lose or Draw
The best way to learn the ins and outs of politics, of course, is by example. In the session, “Win, Lose or Draw – Park and Rec Campaigns Across the Country,” panelists focused on successful and unsuccessful legislative initiatives. The discussion was led by Susan Trautman, CEO, Great Rivers Greenway; Wade Walcutt, director, Cincinnati Parks and Recreation; and Joe Brady, chief strategy officer, Metro Parks Tacoma (Washington).

In April 2013, Great Rivers Greenway, a regional park district covering St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles County, Missouri, touted the success of Proposition P, the Arch-parks-trails sales tax initiative that passed in St. Louis City and County. “What [Prop P] did was it provided three things: it doubled Great Rivers Greenway’s income [about $9.4 million]; it made it the steward of the public’s funding for the CityArchRiver project; and it provided funding for local parks,” notes Susan Trautman of Great Rivers Greenway. “So, 40 percent of the funding [or approximately $12.5 million in the first year] went back to local parks in St. Louis City and County.”

While voters passed the ballot measure, Trautman admits the process wasn’t all smooth sailing. She and her team needed to address what she calls the “political issues, noise and timing. And so, you’re always dealing with people who could be opposed,” says Trautman. One thing that she and her team encountered at the time was a St. Louis County official who proposed selling off approximately 20 St. Louis County parks — a prospect that had some community members up in arms. Fortunately, according to Trautman, some of the money from Proposition P helped to restore funding to St. Louis County parks and kept those 20 parks from being closed.

For park professionals planning to develop a tax initiative in their own community, Trautman stresses being clear, specific and transparent about how the funds will be utilized. She also says your strategy should be driven by what’s happening around you — political issues, other people’s political issues and the timing of the election. Lastly, pay close attention to the voters’ needs. Trautman says: “Listening to people in a room, it always comes back to what you are using the money for and whether or not the people feel that’s an important priority for them.”

Wade Walcutt with Cincinnati Parks and Recreation (where a recent ballot measure failed) — and Joe Brady with Metro Parks Tacoma (who has seen multiple successful measures) shared their agencies’ experiences, also emphasizing the importance of robust community engagement and public-sector planning to ensure voters know what they’ll be getting.

Following the session, attendees headed to Lake Union Park for a working lunch that included a cruise from Lake Union Park to the downtown waterfront. The group then embarked on a walking tour of the Waterfront Park site en route to Port of Seattle’s Pier 69, the venue of the final session of the day.

Park Financing 101
In the session, “Park Financing 101,” J. Dee Frankfourth, associate national conservation strategies director for The Trust for Public Land (TPL), offered attendees best practices for agencies searching for new revenue streams for public funding. Frankfourth shared some key findings from 2016, which showed that out of 104 proposed ballot measures, 84 passed — generating more than $11 billion in funds for land conservation, parks and restoration. As for the November 8, 2016, election, there were 87 park-and-conservation ballot measures proposed in 21 states, with 70 earning voter approval and generating $6.9 billion in funds for conservation, parks and restoration. What’s more, TPL was involved in nearly half of all measures.

Frankfourth then presented the key steps for developing a successful ballot measure, which includes:

  1. Feasibility research,
  2. Public opinion survey,
  3. Program recommendations,
  4. Ballot language and
  5. The campaign.

Finally, the TPL executive shared the main ingredients for conservation funding: basic electoral support backed by elected leadership, a demonstrable need and/or risk, as well as a boots-on-the-ground coalition.

Keynote Presentation
On August 10, attendees gathered at the Washington Park Arboretum for a final day of education. Patrick Guerriero, founding partner of Civitas Public Affairs, delivered the keynote, titled “Key Components of a Successful Campaign.” His presentation focused on the top things to do and consider if you want to win a ballot initiative on parks.

“Park initiatives — embraced by a majority of voters — are a great option for many communities to grow and transform a community’s green space, parks and quality of life,” says Guerriero. He adds that with the right mix of support from leading elected officials, strong grassroots community advocacy and a positive, professional campaign, a significant majority of ballot initiatives win on the ballot in cities and towns across the country (learn more about Patrick Guerriero below).

Designing Your Funding Campaign
The final event of the conference was an interactive workshop presented by Dr. Stephen Page, University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, titled “#Winning – Workshop and Competition: Designing Your Funding Campaign.” Attendees gained new insights into effective mapping of a political strategy. During the workshop, Dr. Page identified four main objectives:

  1. Analyze the politics of a situation,
  2. Identify strategic purpose,
  3. Map and utilize channels of political influence and communication, and
  4. Build support and reduce opposition to pursue your agenda.

He also had attendees participate in a team exercise, challenging them to develop mapping assessments and deliverables.

Ending on a High Note
Throughout the three-day event, attendees acquired a wealth of knowledge from case studies, panel discussions and an interactive workshop — acquiring the key tools and strategies needed to develop their own ballot measure in their community. What’s more, they learned how to correspond community needs with funding sources, as well as how to design a campaign to meet those needs.

However, it wasn’t all work and no play, some attendees ended their Innovation Lab experience with an optional hike of the Seattle Japanese Garden before heading home.

Download copies of the presentations

Gina Mullins-Cohen is NRPA’s Vice President, Marketing, Communications and Publications.

Speaker Spotlight: Patrick Guerriero

Seattle Innovation Lab keynote speaker Patrick Guerriero is no stranger to politics. Prior to becoming a founding partner of Civitas Public Affairs, he served two terms as Mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. It was during his tenure in office that Guerriero oversaw the reconstruction of the city’s infrastructure, as well as an upgrade of the city’s bond rating following a successful re-election bid. Prior to that, he served three terms as a Massachusetts state representative.

Parks & Recreation magazine caught up with Guerriero to learn more about his long career in politics, his outlook on today’s political climate, along with valuable takeaways from his keynote, “Key Components of a Successful Campaign.”

Parks & Recreation: You’ve spent more than two decades in politics. How do you compare or contrast today’s political climate with your early beginnings in politics?

Patrick Guerriero: When I had the privilege to serve as a Massachusetts state legislator and then Mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts, in the 1990s and early 2000s, most big policy challenges and opportunities were tackled by working across partisan lines and finding common ground. Today, we live in an uber-partisan and toxic political environment that makes it very difficult for the country and its national leaders to address many of the country’s biggest challenges. This is especially true in Washington, D.C. As a result of this, citizens are turning to local leaders in cities and towns all across the country to help make a tangible difference in people’s lives on issues like the environment, education and health. This is a great opportunity for mayors and other local-elected officials to lead the way on issues that impact the day-to-day lives of most Americans in a way that transcends partisanship. Working to ensure that every citizen has access to a quality park in his or her neighborhood is good policy and good politics, while also improving economic and health outcomes for residents. With Washington struggling to lead on major issues, this might actually lead to a generation of transformational leadership on the local level all across America.

P&R: What are some common misconceptions that park agencies have about crafting a campaign that engages voters and ultimately compels them to support park initiatives?

Guerriero: The most common mistake made in crafting park initiatives is failing to understand that a park initiative campaign is actually won or lost before the campaign launches publicly. Preparing for a winning campaign requires a feasibility study, smart testing of ballot language, public opinion survey, picking the right ballot timing and determining the most effective messages and messengers. All of that work should be done before a campaign is launched.

P&R: What are three important takeaways from your keynote presentation?

Guerriero: First, voters aren’t dumb, so you shouldn’t try to fool your neighbors by being too fancy or too cute about what you are doing and how much it will cost the average taxpayer. Second, unconventional allies can sometimes be the best advocates for progressive park initiatives. Winning campaigns should reach beyond the predictable base of park advocates and find conservatives, business leaders, clergy groups and others who share a belief in the great value of quality parks. Third, many bold park initiatives have more opponents than you might imagine, so do opposition research before you launch your campaign so you are ready to counter the opposition.  

Vitisia Paynich is a Freelance Writer for Parks & Recreation magazine.