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Tuesday, February 2, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Parks department considers ways to standardize its partnerships

The Parks and Recreation Department is continuing its work creating uniformity and standards in partnerships with nonprofit organizations that are expected to play a larger role in maintaining and improving parks facilities in the coming years.

At last week’s Parks and Recreation Board meeting, PARD Director Kim McNeeley discussed the current state of partnerships with groups such as Waterloo Greenway, Austin Parks Foundation and other conservancies linked to community parks. The update was tied to a City Council resolution approved last March directing PARD to decide on base agreements for parks partnerships, and to ensure it created maximum public benefit with a minimum of taxpayer expense. That resolution had called for a plan by June 2020, but the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic erased that deadline, with department staff continuing the work into 2021.

McNeeley said parks partnerships fall under four primary categories: full public/private partnerships; agreements with a nonprofit organization taking a part in parks facilities’ maintenance; “friends of the park” agreements; or one-off arrangements in which a neighborhood, business or other group gets involved in a parks project.

As examples, she pointed to work the Downtown Austin Alliance has done to improve and program Republic Square Park, and the grant funding opportunities the Austin Parks Foundation carried out at Colony Park, which is part of a much larger transit-oriented development project.

McNeeley said PARD is working to create standards and uniformity in the agreements formed in 2011 with the goal of creating the string of parks along Waller Creek, which is now being overseen in large part by Waterloo Greenway.

“When we are moving forward with any kind of development or programming in a park that is in partnership with a conservancy that is based on an already approved plan, it is our intention to ensure that within our partnership agreements, community engagement is always first and foremost a guiding principle,” she said. “If there’s not already a guiding document we want to make sure that all of our partners are in alignment with the department’s goals and mission.”

The parks board took no action on the update, but asked for the item to be brought back for more questions and discussion at its next meeting.

Related to the partnerships work, Board Member Rich DePalma presented data showing that support for property tax proposals to fund parks improvements may be reaching its upper limits. That could make the role of conservancies and other partners more important in maintaining the quality of city parks facilities in years to come.

According to the Trust for Public Land, Austin parks currently receive $140 in public spending per person, compared to $21 in private dollars per resident.

“When you talk about the amount of investments we have to make in our facilities and the master plans we have that are yet to be approved … they’re finishing up a two-year facilities assessment that is looking at 170 properties and between 30 and 50 buildings to make an assessment of what the needs are,” DePalma said. “That’s things like your roofing and your flooring, and then you throw in the (Americans With Disabilities Act), which we haven’t even begun to address in a satisfactory way.”

DePalma said the city needs to quickly embrace partnerships and other options for making much-needed improvements at parks across the city.

“When you fail to make investments over a year or two or three years and then you couple that over a few decades, now all of a sudden you have really set back your parks system,” he said. “You can’t catch up. You can only start back up but you’ll never catch up with those investments.”

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City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

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