Rethinking city parks

July 25, 2002

WHEN THE Caribbean Festival was held in Druid Hill Park last weekend, lots of people made money. The private organizers collected more than $100,000 in gate receipts. They also sold booth space to about 100 vendors. Even the police and public works departments made money: They charged the festival thousands of dollars to cover safety and cleanup costs, according to organizers.

By comparison, Druid Hill's overseer, the Recreation and Parks Department, made a mere $35 -- for issuing the three-day event's permit. It charged no rent for the park.

Typical.

At a time when tight budgets have forced other city departments to aggressively start billing private organizations for public services provided for special events, the parks agency is still immune to this enterprising spirit. It refuses to recognize the profit-making potential of its 7,000 acres of public space. Fees for using parks or their pavilions for private events are often nonexistent or unrealistically low.

This must change. Otherwise, Mayor Martin O'Malley's efforts to re-energize the rec and parks operation are doomed to fail for lack of money.

From New York to Providence, R.I., to Indianapolis to Sacramento, Calif., to Chicago, other cities are assiduously working to raise the quality of their parks. Knowing they are competing directly with commercial amusement complexes, they have hired fee-paying concessionaires to run restaurants, souvenir stands and attractions that act as visitor magnets. The result: More people use parks for weddings and family gatherings.

In those cities, money raised from sponsors and park users supplements government budget allocations. One unusual park system, in Wheeling, W.Va., is so entrepreneurial it hardly requires any taxpayer subsidy at all. (Appropriately, it doesn't have a director, it has a chief executive officer.)

Baltimore should copy these successful approaches. It should be bolder in seeking sponsorships of events and facilities. And though the department last year raised $2.7 million in private grants, individual donations are unheard of. They should not be.

Baltimore is saddled with a huge rec and parks infrastructure, in which many facilities are nearly a century old and in rickety shape. This is a legacy of chronic underfunding; the recreation and parks budget has been slashed from $36.1 million in 1987 to about $25 million this year.

Virtually no other big city spends as little per capita on its rec and parks operation. That's why Baltimore must be more nimble and inventive to make a little go farther -- no opportunity to produce badly needed revenue should be overlooked.

In the end, though, no real turnaround can be achieved without additional public spending. And that's unlikely unless more Baltimoreans become vocal advocates for their parks.

This administration, like its predecessors, will find the parks easy to ignore as long as taxpayers don't seem to care about what happens to these green oases.

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