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West Michigan Communities Outline Investments for Parks, Recreation Improvements

As the economic recovery continues to take shape in West Michigan, local officials are again looking to parks and recreational assets as crucial parts of the region’s economic development strategy.

While funding for parks and other quality of life projects was the first to go in the downturn, a handful of local governments across West Michigan have adopted new master plans that outline millions of dollars in potential projects and improvements.

It’s a sign of both the region’s improved economic performance and a renewed appreciation for the role that parks play in the attraction and retention of people and businesses in West Michigan, sources told MiBiz.

“It’s not just (about) puppies and playgrounds anymore,” said Steve Faber, executive director for Friends of Grand Rapids Parks.

Improving economic conditions and a renewed focus on placemaking undefined which is essentially quality of life-oriented planning undefined are likely pushing municipal officials across the state to emphasize parks and recreation investments again, Faber said.

Several townships in the region recently approved parks and recreation master plans extending out to 2018, many of which include significant expenditures on park infrastructure, sports fields and public activity facilities.

“A lot of times, it’s in communities’ best interests to list as many projects as possible,” Faber said. “But when you put these plans together, you want to have a meaningful process, and I think that’s part of what we’re seeing with these new planning efforts.”

The problem with master plans is that they often end up as more of a wish list than sound investment strategies built around community engagement and partnerships, he said.

In particular, communities struggle to measure the economic impact of parks and recreational facilities, which were often justified with the sentiment that “it’s good for kids,” Faber said.

“We’re now fleshing out how to measure the success of good public space,” he said. “It’s not just about health and the environment, but it’s more about how places with quality public space have lower crimes rates and how it’s essential to community revitalization.”

While many communities put off parks improvement projects as a result of the recession, others have started to revisit those plans, said Don Komejan, manager for Holland Charter Township.

“Many municipalities are now reaching a point as revenue streams improve and stabilize that this type of infrastructure improvement is coming to a higher level of consideration,” Komejan said.

The goal in Holland Charter Township is to accomplish as many projects as possible in the next few years, he said.

Included in the 2014-2018 parks and recreation plan for Holland Charter Township is an estimated $10.5 million recreation center that’s part of a major overhaul of Quincy Park. While the township has yet to allocate funds for the project, it wants to see the project kick off in 2017 and rely on some grant funding, he said.< "This project has to be considered along with projects from other areas of operation like roads and water and sewer. I’m not in a position to say this ranks as a priority on the list," Komejan said, noting the township board does have a good history of investing in parks. Other projects around West Michigan include a $600,000 trail extension connecting the Grand Rapids Township trail network to a trail in Ada and another $820,000 project to construct the 3 Mile Road/East Beltline Trail from Leffingwell Avenue to the East Beltline and south to the Village at Knapp's Corner development. The township plan also includes a $40,000 investment for grading and site preparation for Crahen Valley Park located northeast of Frederick Meijer Gardens off Leonard Street. Improvement plans to add amenities to the more than 200-acre Crahen Valley Park extend out to 2018, with phase one of construction estimated at nearly $1.4 million potentially starting in 2016, according to the township's master plan. Funding for the Crahen Valley Park update is expected to be a mix of township funds, community development block grants and private dollars, the plan stated. The City of Grand Rapids took a different tactic and worked with groups like Friends of Grand Rapids Parks to pass a millage to fund maintenance and improvement costs for local parks. "In the case of Grand Rapids, (parks and recreations) was one of the first departments that got the brunt of the budget cuts starting in the early 2000s," Faber said. "By the time Friends of Grand Rapids Parks got involved, the budget was cut by 60 percent already at the same time a lot of other departments were getting their first cuts." In an economic downturn, parks and recreation is usually the first to get cut and the last to get restored, Faber said. Having a dedicated millage helps ensure a city's parks get funding even in a downturn when leaders are focused more on funding police and fire budgets, infrastructure projects for streets and roads, and other essential services, Faber said. "Frankly, that's why the whole parks millage last year was critical," Faber said. "Grand Rapids has never had dedicated funding for its parks before, and that's where cities have been able to protect their parks funding undefined through those millages." MiBiz spoke to Faber after he had returned from a placemaking panel in Traverse City where he said the argument for parks and recreation investment continues to build a solid case around their impact to economic development. "It's about how to really make parks work for the city," he said. "They’ve never been talked about that way before, but they can be a workhorse."

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