Recent budget discussions in Hartford seem to be heading in that direction. Let's hope the notion can be nipped in the bud; it would be a very bad idea.
Hartford is blessed with a world-class park system. It was created around the turn of the last century, when the city was a center of wealth and industrial vitality. Today, the city by itself has neither the tax base nor the concentration of personal wealth to support its park system. There are, however, creative ways to maintain the parks without giving them away.
Good park maintenance is a strong economic development tool because it shows that the city is attractive and concerned about its beauty and quality of life.
Conversely, poor maintenance sends the opposite message. If the city can't keep its parks in decent shape, what can it do?
The park system is one of the special things that differentiate Hartford from other, more ordinary locations. It must be part of a well-thought-out economic development plan for attracting businesses, residents and visitors, all of whom are essential to increasing our tax base.
As The Courant reported, there was a suggestion at a city budget meeting that there be a greater focus on park "friends" groups to support the parks. Before we go there, let's look at a 2007 report from the Trust for Public Land regarding Hartford parks.
The report duly noted what it considered remarkable success of park friends groups in Hartford such as Riverfront Recapture, Friends of Elizabeth Park, Friends of Pope Park, Friends of Keney Park and the Bushnell Park Foundation. All have raised substantial funds to support some of our parks.
However, as the Trust for Public Land pointed out, the success of these groups, operating independently, has actually worked against the health of the park system as a whole. The city has made minimal effort to control and coordinate these groups, and the result is that smaller, less attractive neighborhood parks have received little attention.
Relying on the friends groups, the city has been "particularly ineffective" in attracting external funding for parks, the report found.
The Trust for Public Land compared Hartford to similar cities around the country in raising funds available only to municipalities, and found that Hartford has limited success attracting funds that other cities rely on for their parks. Houston, for example, receives parks funding from a dozen state and federal sources, Hartford from two.
This must change.
While friends groups and private funding are vitally important, the city alone is responsible for the entire park system. The city has tended to abdicate this responsibility; it must reclaim it, particularly if it wishes to rely more heavily on private funds to support parks.
City officials must set standards and hold accountable any group who works on city parks. Maintenance and improvement plans cannot be left entirely to the interests and energies of narrowly focused entities.
That being said, the city could encourage the development of a citywide Friends of Hartford Parks group, which could coordinate the work of existing groups, setting citywide priorities and generating funds for a healthy park system, not just individual parks. This would require staffing, I recognize, but the payoff could be tremendous, as it has been in Houston and other cities. The current Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission operates in this realm, but it has neither the responsibility nor the resources to coordinate such an effort.
Finally, the city must support park maintenance. The public works department and its parks services division have been gutted in recent years. We still have a small cadre of workers devoted to park maintenance, but numbers are down substantially. Just as important, there has been a substantial reduction in supervisory personnel. The result has been severely reduced effectiveness, despite the yeoman efforts of the remaining staffers.
Public works leaders have focused on increased training, flexibility and responsibility for line staff, but efforts have been hampered by shrinking numbers and other critical issues demanding attention. If the city is to be a good steward of its remarkable park system and surrounding neighborhoods, it must have the workers to do it.
The parks budget has already been whittled to the bone, but volunteers and private funding cannot be counted on to fund or perform day-to-day maintenance. Further, the direction and focus of the park system as a whole cannot be left to the whims of individual organizations as they exist today, no matter how well intentioned they may be.
The city will need to spend money to make money, to invest directly in an effort to build private support— as well as state and federal support — if it is to keep its showpiece park system.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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