Second Thought: A new model for Worcester’s parks

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Last Monday, the Worcester Regional Research Bureau released a brief on park conservancies. Conservancies are nonprofit organizations that manage and maintain public parks.

Green Hill Park, the city's largest, comprises more than 480 acres, including the state's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Green Hill Park, the city’s largest, comprises more than 480 acres, including the state’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The brief notes that while “the parkland maintained by the City has increased by 30 acres in the past decade, funding and staffing have remained essentially stagnant.” It raised important questions about whether such a model would benefit Worcester.

There is a lot to like about the prospect of having some or all of the city’s parks run by a conservancy. Private fundraising can more easily be directed toward a civic good, the board is made up of private individuals and public officials, and parks will have dedicated staffing.

Also, the very nature of a conservancy suggests that public parks either should not be a core function of municipal government or can be better served by an agency outside of municipal government that can find additional funds to better manage the parks. As such, conservancies have crossover appeal.

We agree that conservancies may be worth pursuing, but we believe there are important questions to ask.

First, what about the city employees who currently maintain the parks? Will they be hired by the conservancy? If so, how would their compensation and job descriptions be affected?

Second, will the city ensure that the same level of transparency exists? Having parks run by the city, accountable to the City Manager and overseen by the City Council ensures the public’s voice is heard.

Third, how can Worcester ensure a reasonable level of responsiveness and equal opportunity of access?

Finally, how does the public — which the Research Bureau paper notes “retains ultimate control” — ensure that the conservancy does not become an inefficient operation?

Moreover, a January 2014 report by Washington, D.C.-based Resources for the Future highlighted a number of possible problems with a conservancy approach:

  • “Free riding”: A donations-based approach will almost always lead to underfunding because people can enjoy the benefits of the park without helping to cover its costs.
  • Uncertainty in the year-to-year funding stream: Voluntary donations are inherently uncertain, which makes it difficult to rely on them for ongoing operational expenses.
  • “Crowding out” of public funds: As the private sector steps in with greater levels of funding, it tends to step out and put its limited dollars toward other uses.
  • The need to spend money to make money: Foundations, conservancies and other park nonprofits incur significant costs to raise money — executive salaries, proposal writing and the myriad other costs involved in securing donations.
  • Potential neighborhood “haves” and “have nots”: Park amenities may be targeted toward selective groups or areas rather than the entire community.

We support entertaining the idea of a conservancy for Worcester’s public parks. As always, though, the devil is in the details and the public should ensure its interests are protected.

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