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Friday, August 29, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano
Butler Park Pitch and Putt stays in family
Though the terms have yet to be hashed out, the Kinser family will continue operating Butler Park Pitch and Putt, as they have for the past 64 years.
“Shame on us for letting it go so long without raising the issue of having a fair return,” said Council Member Laura Morrison. “On the other hand, my support of this is supporting other values than just money.”
City Council approved a resolution to negotiate with the family, and only the family, in a vote of 5-2, with Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Bill Spelman voting in opposition.
The alternative, backed by Spelman and Leffingwell, would open the bidding process to the public, as is the standard practice in the Parks Department.
Parks and Recreation Department Director Sarah Hensley explained that her department had, in the past, allowed contracts to be renewed to a single entity. She said she had been working to change that process, in part, at the behest of the Parks and Recreation Board.
Hensley cited Lady Bird Lake rowing club and Barton Springs burger stand concessions as examples where the process had been changed to an open bidding process, without changing the mission of the concession.
Now, the city will negotiate with the Kinser family alone, then bring that contract back to Council and allow them to “mull over” whether the terms of the contract are acceptable.
Spelman drew a distinction between the iconic nature of those running the park and the park itself, noting that the identity of the operators was most likely “opaque to the average user.”
Spelman argued that opening the bidding process could give the city more information that would allow them to negotiate with the Kinser family, even if they were awarded the contract in the end, in order to improve services.
“Given the value of this land, given what we could do with it, I think we owe it to ourselves to get as much information as we can about what can go there,” said Spelman.
Leffingwell said he agreed but would put it even more strongly, even though he would hope the Kinser family won the bid. He warned against the practice of subsidizing operators just because they had been there for a long time.
“I think we have a duty to all of the citizens of Austin to make sure that we provide the best park experience for them,” said Leffingwell. “We’ve talked, over the past couple of years, about how our park system as whole has been suffering from a lack of money.”
“We have a lot of park space — we’re on par with the amount of park space we have, but we are subpar about the money that we spend on maintenance and sustaining these parks,” Leffingwell continued. “We’ve got to find other ways to do that.”
“Doing it this way, we’ll never know what we missed,” he said.
Leffingwell said he supported the use of the park, along with a well-maintained facility that offered a rate of return comparable to other park concessions.
Hensley said the Butler course offers a 6 percent rate of return. Hancock Golf Course offers an 11 percent rate of return.
Despite widespread public interest, Zilker Neighborhood Association member David King was the sole member of the public to speak in favor of leaving Butler Park Pitch and Putt in the hands of the Kinser family, and against the commercialization of the city’s parks.
“How far are we going to take this?” asked King. “Is the purpose of our parks going to be just to generate revenue?”
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