Pop quiz: How does Greenville pay for a massive new park west of downtown while at the same time improving and maintaining the more than three dozen parks already here? The answer may be found outside of town.
Cities all across the country are trying to figure out how to build, refurbish, and maintain public parks, and a growing number of them are turning to park conservancies, which are private, nonprofit organizations that raise money for parks independently of the city, something supporters say can improve park success while keeping down taxpayer expense.
Later this month, members of Greenville City Council are expected to consider a resolution that would commit up to $2 million a year in hospitality tax revenue for construction of the first phase of City Park, a park that is expected to transform the western side of Greenville much like Falls Park and subsequent projects transformed the West End. The tax plan would last for up to 10 years.
“We should look into that model and what some of the hybrids are, including how they outline responsibility versus authority,” said City Councilwoman Gaye Sprague. “There are lots and lots of questions left to answer, but it’s worth exploring.”
Key to success
According to the 2015 “Public Spaces/Private Money, the Triumphs and Pitfalls of Urban Park Conservancies” report by the Trust for Public Land, about 50 percent of major cities have at least one private park conservancy.
The roots of the conservancy movement are usually traced to the founding of New York’s Central Park Conservancy in 1980, the report said. Like most conservancies, the Central Park group emerged from a crisis.
A nationwide recession and several decades of depopulation left New York on the brink of insolvency. The crisis hit the parks department hard, and Central Park was unkempt, unsettling, and unsafe. Today, New York has nearly two dozen organizations providing financial support for city parks.
Typically, conservancies are created to fund large capital projects. Many evolve to oversee actual construction and a few handle park administration. The keys to success, the Trust for Public Land report said, is for conservancies to have a formal agreement with the city outlining responsibilities for each party, a role for public officials, master planning and project prioritization, a strong and effective board of directors, and robust fundraising.
“Clean, safe, sustainable parks don’t come cheaply, and most conservancies take on a heavy fundraising role,” the report said. “In fact, a conservancy should not be attempted by any group not committed to serious fundraising.”
The report said in some ways, an underfunded conservancy might be worse than no conservancy at all. “Without a conservancy, public expectation for park excellence falls on the parks department, city government, and the mayor. If a new conservancy is held up as the solution for park problems, political pressure on the government may be lessened. But if a park conservancy is then unable to raise sufficient resources to make a difference, the park will be without both private money and public political influence.”
A growing tool
Using a funding model used for Falls Park, city officials expect private contributions to pay for City Park’s amenities such as an amphitheater, playground, pedestrian bridge, and boardwalk, Mayor Knox White said. The mayor also noted that the Community Foundation of Greenville has committed $150,000 toward the park and will provide the city a vehicle to accept private donations and corporate contributions.
But so far, there’s no such conduit for donations to the city’s other parks. “Private individuals are not going to write a check to the city,” City Councilwoman Amy Ryberg Doyle said.
However, a parks conservancy could take care of that, Doyle said, by providing a way for private citizens, groups, or companies to give money for specific park improvements as well as a vehicle for matching grants that the city is not eligible for itself.
To see an example of how this would work, one needs to look no further than Charleston.
In 2007, businesswoman and philanthropist Darla Moore founded the Charleston Parks Conservancy. The conservancy works with the City of Charleston to replace outdated equipment and improve playgrounds, design gardens in parks that don’t have any, and rejuvenate and reinvent parks that haven’t changed in years.
One of the organization’s biggest projects included the $5.9 million makeover of the once-neglected Colonial Lake between Broad and Beaufain streets in peninsular Charleston.
The Charleston Parks Conservancy is currently working to turn the former police horse stables and superintendent’s cottage in Hampton Park, one of the city’s largest parks, into a community center. Other projects include the renovation of Wragg Square and the revitalization of the Moultrie playground.
In addition to raising money for renovation projects, the Charleston Parks Conservancy deploys a group called the Park Angels, a corps of volunteers that engage in various beautification projects, plan events, act as environmental educators, and otherwise serve as ambassadors of the city’s urban parks.
The Charleston Parks Conservancy isn’t the only group using such a public-private model to protect parks. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy formed 20 years ago to address concerns that city’s regional parks were deteriorating and the city didn’t have enough money to fix them.
At first, the conservancy did one capital project in each of the city’s then-four regional parks, said Scott Roller, the conservancy’s senior communications director. “That showed what we were capable of doing,” he said, adding the conservancy has now completed 17 projects. “In the last three or four years, citizens voiced a need for us to work with neighborhood parks.”
Roller said green infrastructure would be a big part of the conservancy’s future. “Pittsburgh values green space,” he said. “Green infrastructure will be a big part of what we do moving ahead. Green space is healthy. It looks good, but it also controls stormwater and leads to economic development. We see folks moving to the region and green space is one of the things they ask about along with cost of living, the job market, and quality of schools.”
Greenville resident Judy Cromwell, who is involved in the city’s Tree Foundation, has been a longtime supporter of a parks conservancy. “Maybe it could be tied to the Tree Foundation,” she said.
“Too much green is disappearing from Greenville,” she said. “We need more green spaces, not less.”