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Portland Parks & Recreation looks forward, asks public to look critically at park system’s future

5:31 pm April 3rd, 2013
A family looking through the fence to a future park project in an area where parks are in short supply and high demand- Photo courtesy of Portland Parks & Recreation, with our thanks!

A family looking through the fence to a future park project in an area where parks are in short supply and high demand- Photo courtesy of Portland Parks & Recreation, with our thanks!

By Lauren Seynhaeve- staff

For over a century, Portlanders have regularly passed parks ballot measures that ensure park funding in the city of Portland.  Those bonds and levies have maintained the funding that Portland needed to preserve and grow the park system throughout Portland.

In 2011, Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) received the National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management from the AmericanAcademy for Park and Recreation Administration and the National Recreation & Park Association, solidifying Portland’s status as one of the best cities in the nation for parks.

“Parks, natural areas, trails, community centers and playgrounds are integral to the city’s quality of life – they are places to unplug from technology, revered lands passed down from generation to generation and an important source of low cost, healthy activity and recreation,” Jennifer Yocom, PP&R Community Relations Manager said.

But Portland’s future may not be so bright if a new bond isn’t brought to voters soon. The last levy funding Portland parks expired in 2009, and the last bond is due to expire in 2015.

That’s why PP&R is working with the Portland Parks Foundation to find out the best time to refer a bond measure to the ballot.  To help inform that decision, PP&R is asking the public to help discuss the history and importance of public investment and to prioritize the current PP&R assets and future investments.

“When you are asking Portlanders to make a major investment, the conversation needs to be thorough, accurate and timely,” Yocom said. “The timing hasn’t been right, not just because of the need for economic recovery but because Portlanders don’t necessarily have a clear sense of the need at parks.”

In a letter addressed to PP&R staff, parks director Mike Abbaté outlined four main conversational elements: educating the public on the history of public investment and how investment now would impact future generations; organizing 100+ groups to volunteer and advocate; prioritizing current assets and analyzing where to invest in the future; and monitoring the economy and public attitudes to see when a new bond measure would be most successful.

“While Portlanders are not ready to invest in a Portland Parks bond effort this year, we are beginning a deeper conversation about the most pressing health and safety needs in our Parks system, the maintenance functions we need to perform that will save money down the road, and how we preserve those special places, the parks and natural areas that make Portland unique, for the next generation,” Abbaté said in his letter.

“The need for Parks is critical: for example, many parks, including more than sixty playgrounds or half of our city’s playgrounds, will need major rehab or replacement within the next ten years,” Yocom said. “Without this bond, many playgrounds will have to close due to unsafe equipment.”

Nick Hardigg, Executive Director of the Portland Parks Foundation, believes that if a successful education campaign is launched, Portlanders will be more receptive to the idea of supporting a parks bond measure.

“Most people really love their parks, but a very large number of people think that the parks are fine and can do without additional funding,” Hardigg said.

Part of the problem, according to Hardigg, is that many more affluent voters in Portland have easy access to beautiful parks, and those voters are simply unaware of the need for parks in less affluent areas.

“People just don’t see the neighborhoods that don’t have many parks, and those are the areas that need parks the most,” Hardigg said. “The case of need is invisible in Portland.  Portland needs to know that the benefit would be huge if we could service those communities better.”

Portlanders believe that PP&R has done a fantastic job with the parks system: nine in 10 Portlanders (91 percent) give positive marks to the quality of the parks, programs, playgrounds and community centers, according to PP&R statistics.  And with nearly half a million volunteer hours dedicated to park maintenance and upkeep each year, it is clear that Portlanders love their parks.

But there may be a sense of complacency that comes with the high level of support for parks as well.  66 percent of voters believe that say the Bureau “is probably efficient with the money they have.”

“As we continue to have limited resources, I know we will be asking ourselves a difficult question: should we complete several short term fixes or do we focus our resources to invest more deeply in fewer facilities while others are taken out of service?” Abbaté said in his letter. “Our choices will only become more important as we start to see more effects from the lack of investment.”

City Commissioner Nick Fish said, “Portlanders are passionate about our nationally recognized park system.  We share a commitment to preserving and protecting our Gold Medal parks and recreation system for future generations. Based in part on pocket-book concerns, we are delaying a bond measure until next year. When we do put a bond measure on the ballot, we remain confident that Portlanders will once again step up to reinvest in their beloved parks, trails and natural areas.”

PP&R and Portland Parks Foundation are hopeful that an educational campaign will help the Portland community understand that money now will mean a future for Portland parks – every generation needs to leave a legacy for the next generation to enjoy.

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