Volunteers are key to livelier city parks

Baltimore: But if citizens pitch in, they must know they won't be penalized for their activism.

An Editorial

April 29, 2001

THERE WAS considerable excitement when Friends of Patterson Park held its annual meeting last month. More than 300 people attended, including 160 who signed up to join the booster group's rapidly growing membership roster. Forty-three exhibitors also participated.

The reason for this record turnout: Good things are happening around Patterson Park.

The 166-acre Southeast Baltimore oasis is slated for a $2.5 million facelift. Lighting and landscaping will be improved. The lake -- which has seven varieties of ducks even though it lacks boats -- will be reconstructed. The park's landmark pagoda will be renovated.

Meanwhile, surrounding neighborhoods are benefiting from their proximity to the Canton waterfront. After many lean years, houses are in demand again.

Unfortunately, Patterson Park and its optimistic promoters are exceptions. Most of the 11 large citywide parks and 41 community parks are in a sad state and have no boosters. Many are in or near deteriorating neighborhoods.

Caring for a park or a recreation center is about the last thing that forlorn residents worry about.

Yet increased voluntarism is key to maintaining Baltimore's parks now that the city government is slashing expenditures.

What about the $9.2 million the state has committed to city parks this fiscal year and next?

It's a lifesaving infusion for the crumbling parks system. But it's earmarked mostly for capital projects. Unless private sponsors step in, programming will be cut.

Sadly, the current level of voluntarism provides no reliable safety net. City Hall has been running the recreation and parks functions so long without encouraging citizen involvement that no meaningful volunteer machinery exists.

Contrast that with adjoining Baltimore County. There, about 50,000 residents donate more than 500,000 hours each year to their local recreation and parks programs.

Volunteers run an impressive array of rec and parks programs through 46 local councils, which generate more than $8 million a year to augment the county's budget allocations.

It would be foolhardy to think that the city rec and parks operation could be sustained on equally extensive voluntary basis. If that were tried here, sadly, the poverty of means and minds would likely assure the collapse of most activities.

But when the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable studied city government last year, they recommended that the city parks operation "significantly increase the number of volunteers who support its full-time staff." Creation of community councils to support recreation programs also was advocated.

Marvin F. Billups Jr., who took over as the city's parks chief in October, is moving in that direction.

He wants master plans for those parks that don't have them. Last month, he convened the first in a series of meetings to figure out how increased voluntarism could be best employed.

Patterson Park, which has the strongest support group operating in the city, offers some pointers.

"Every park needs a community organizer," says the group's president, Nancy Supik. "There has to be some structure in place. It's very hard for people to volunteer for the city; it's too big."

Friends of Patterson Park has two organizers, paid through foundation grants. Because of their efforts, hardly a weekend goes by without some event in the park. Water ballet in the Olympic-size swimming pool in the summer, a parade of Halloween lanterns that attracted thousands of spectators, bike races and a roller skating event called "Frankenstein on Wheels."

"Ninety percent of volunteer activity is programming," says Michael J. Baker, the city's chief parks administrator.

Using volunteers for maintenance and routine cleanup duties that are now handled by department staff is trickier.

Two weeks ago, roughly 1,000 Baltimoreans spent a day cleaning 70 park and rec sites for spring. That was a laudable exercise in pulling together.

But while some community groups help to maintain their parks, such obligations grow tedious and burdensome very quickly.

Community cleanups in Wyman Park Dell near the Baltimore Museum of Art, for example, seemed to go fine as long as they were done once a month. But when the sponsoring group tried a twice-a-month schedule, half of the helpers dropped out.

As the city tries to increase voluntarism, it faces two tough challenges.

One is how to extend private participation to apathetic neighborhoods that have no resources. Assigning an organizer will not be enough. A sustained program, supported by the Parks & People Foundation, a business group or some other sponsor, is needed.

The other challenge is to prevent hard-working booster groups from feeling victimized or short-changed.

As Friends of Patterson Park has grown and taken more and more responsibility in the park, the group also has become, by some accounts, cagey about disclosing the full scope of its activities to the city. It seems local activists, as taxpayers, fear that the city will divert municipal resources from Patterson Park to some other park that has no private support group.

In the face of these kinds of suspicions, Mayor Martin O'Malley must assure Baltimoreans that the city will not undermine their hard work if they pitch in. He should recognize citizen involvement through rewards that would lead to more volunteerism.

That's the only way to substantially increase private enthusiasm for helping the city run its parks and recreation programs.

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