Audit finds Grand Rapids falls behind similar Midwest cities in parks

Jim Harger – The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS – Despite its “extraordinary” park properties, the city has less park land and spends less on its parks than most Midwestern cities, according to an independent audit of the city’s parks and recreation department released Thursday.

The audit recommends the city overhaul its parks and recreation department to focus on parks as an “economic tool” rather than a “spend” department that returns little value to the city.

“The department is at a crossroads and needs to determine how they can manage the system forward and operate in a sustainable manner,” said the audit report by Pros Consulting of Indianapolis, Ind.

According to the audit, Grand Rapids:

  • owns 7.88 acres of park land per 1,000 residents. Other Great Lakes and Midwestern cities have 12-15 acres per thousand residents.
  • spends $19.34 per residents on parks and recreation compared to $49 nationally. Thanks to budget cuts, that is down 68 percent from $38 per resident in 2002.
  • spends $3,792 per acre in “maintained” parks compared to $6,049 per acre nationally.
  • has 13.85 miles of trails, or .07 miles per 1,000 residents compared to .4 miles per 1,000 residents nationally.
  • needs to put $30 million into park repairs after spending almost nothing on capital improvements over the past five years.

“This independent analysis shows that we are lagging behind our peer cities,” said 2nd Ward Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss.

“Reversing the trends and rebuilding a quality parks system is critical to our economic competitiveness, public health and quality of life. Great cities have great parks,” said Bliss, a member of an ad hoc committee reviewing the city’s park operations.

Steve Faber, director of Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, said the audit results will serve as a starting point for a rebuilding of the city’s parks and recreation department as part of the city’s “transformation” process.

“Overall, this report says we have to completely re-position the way we look at parks in the city. For almost every indicator, we are at about half of where we should be,” Faber said.

“The situation we’re in now is not consistent with our community’s values,” said Andy Guy, board chairman for Friends of Grand Rapids, a group formed two years ago to help improve city parks.

While other city’s parks and recreation programs have up to 30 sources of funding, Faber said Grand Rapids relies mainly on three sources: general operating funds, grants and participant fees.

The audit recommends other possible funding sources the city could develop, including a designated property tax, park admission fees, parking fees, a hotel tax, food and beverage tax, corporate naming rights and advertising sales.

The audit noted the department does not have a business development section to help find new revenue sources and develop partnerships that could bring more money to the system. Neither does it have a planning division to support improvements or plan for future improvements, the audit said.

The department also does not have financial principles in place to manage the system nor does it track the economic value of the parks to the city, the audit said.

The audit recommendations will be sent to a city “Design Team” that includes city employees, city commissioners and other citizen representatives.

Public Services Director James Hurt, who oversees the Parks and Recreation Department, said the audit recommendations will become part of the city’s long-term planning process.

“The study shows that the Parks Department needs to be repositioned for the future to survive and thrive in the coming years.” said 1st Ward Commissioner Walt Gutowski, a Design Team member.

“The Parks Department needs to re-think how to become financially sustainable which requires a different financial management model,” Gutowski said.

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