When theyre good, a citys parks provide a tangible return on a taxpayers dollar. Especially during a recession, parks offer free entertainment and a healthy escape.
But park services are among the first casualties when a citys budget needs trimming. The 2009 budget for the Parks and Recreation Department is $53,214,539 about $3 million less than last years. The department has shed 95 full-time positions since 2008; its staff has shrunk from 746 full-time employees in 2000 to 359 today.
Visitors to KC parks have often found crumbling infrastructure and ragged maintenance. More than a third (35 percent) of respondents to 2008s citizen-satisfaction survey reported that they had seldom to never set foot in a city park during the previous year. According to City Auditor Gary Whites report, fewer than half of the respondents (48 percent) reported satisfaction with the overall quality of city parks, recreation programs and facilities.
Lack of funding is part of the problem; lack of community engagement is another. But a handful of the citys parks has improved, thanks to a few citizens who believe that if you want better service, you have to ask for it. Sometimes its just a matter of speaking up. Other times, you have to raise a little hell.
The Mom: Roxana Shaffe
Roxana Shaffe says Gillham Park in the 1990s was a sand pit littered with broken bottles and used condoms. She was a new renter near the park, but friends who grew up in the neighborhood told her that it hadn't always been that way. Shaffe and her husband, Rob Menteer, bought a house near Gillham Park in 2002 and had the first of their three children the following year. Menteer participated in the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, where he and Shaffe learned that past efforts to improve the park, which runs along both sides of Gillham Road from 39th Street to Brush Creek Boulevard, had hit a wall.
By 2005, Shaffe had become accustomed to avoiding Gillham Park. She would pass it on her way to Loose Park, wondering why she should have to drive her kids three miles to find safe, modern playground equipment when a perfectly good but neglected park was just steps from her home.
It occurred to Shaffe that the staff of Kansas City's Parks and Recreation Department might be unaware that a new generation of families raising young children now lived by the park. "We don't just get a good park because we deserve one," she says she told a group of mothers once, when conversation turned to the park's decrepit condition.
A similar discussion with her husband prompted him to ask, "Why don't you go do something about it?" So Shaffe, who describes herself as a lifetime loudmouth, began researching the process for requesting a new playground in Gillham Park. Friends advised her of the unspoken first rule of doing business with the mayor-appointed commissioners of Kansas City's Board of Parks and Recreation: "Whoever is in their face is who gets things done," she says.
Shaffe made it her full-time job to get in the board's face. But first, she needed funding. The Parks and Recreation commissioners usually advise citizens to try to score Public Improvement Advisory Committee dollars from the city for capital improvements like new playgrounds before coming before their board. So Shaffe and a neighbor, Stacey Roste, began attending 4th District PIAC meetings in 2005. They sat in the back and watched the tactics of other groups whose requests earned approval. They learned that they needed to form an official committee and prove they were involved in park stewardship and their community. They became the Friends of Gillham Park.
Next up: lobbying. Shaffe became the "grip and grinner," she says, pouring on the charm with influential people such as then-4th District Councilman Jim Glover. Roste kept track of which meetings to attend in order to keep the Friends of Gillham Park's agenda in front of as many officials as possible.
In 2005 and 2006, the Friends of Gillham Park organized outings and events in the park, including volunteer trash pickup days. Membership ballooned. "Often, people would join just by seeing us in the park," Shaffe says.
The PIAC committee reviewed the group's proposal at the citywide PIAC meeting on August 24, 2006, and decided that the Friends of Gillham Park had fulfilled its mission. It recommended a $200,000 grant. Glover's approval made it official.
In early 2007, construction on the playground had not yet begun when Shaffe heard a rumor: Incoming Mayor Mark Funkhouser's anticipated belt-tightening threatened the completion of projects, such as the Gillham Park playground, regardless of whether they'd already been approved. So the Friends of Gillham Park concentrated on lobbying Mayor Kay Barnes' appointees before they made way for Funkhouser's board. Shaffe also went back to PIAC. "I had to convince them not only to not freeze the allocation they'd already approved for us, but to actually give us more," she says.
She did it. PIAC allocated another $387,520 to Gillham Park's restoration in 2007, on top of the previous year's $200,000. Crews this year started patching the historic stone stairs that had started to crumble. Asphalt walkways will be replaced with the same bouncy, synthetic substance that coats the jogging trails along Mill Creek Park, at the edge of the Country Club Plaza.
In 2008, Shaffe and her group found out why Loose Park is so much better-looking than other city parks: Yearly donations from the Ward Family Foundation and Russell Stover Candies Inc. pay for litter pickup, fertilizer, weed control, turf aeration, seeding and tree care, and go far beyond what Parks and Recreation can afford to spend on maintenance.
The Ward Family Foundation and Russell Stover included Gillham Park in their 2008 donations for upgraded park care. Members of the Ward Family Foundation's board, who regularly drive the Gillham Park route, had noticed the community's effort behind the original improvements. In accordance with the philanthropy's wishes, the dollar amount of its gift isn't disclosed.
Shaffe's excitement is immeasurable, too. "The park was almost dead," she says. "Now, when my kids and I go down there, people tell us that it reminds them of the way the park used to be."
Ashland Square Park and Chelsea Park
The Marchers: Joyce and Rachel Riley
Rachel Riley was 4 years old when she took her first trip with her brothers and sisters to Ashland Square Park at 23rd Street and Kensington. They could walk to the park from their house, and kids mobbed the junior swimming pool and the more shallow wading pool on hot days. "It was a beautiful park," she says.
Riley is 44 now, and the park's beauty has faded. Bald patches discolor the once-lush turf. Gang graffiti is etched into the surfaces of shelters and picnic tables. Both Ashland Square Park and Chelsea Park, at 27th Street and Chelsea, are on the city's East Side, where, according to 2008's citizen-satisfaction survey, 45 percent of respondents reported that they "seldom or never" visit city parks.
Ashland Square Park's concrete pools turn 60 years old this year, yet they remain indispensable in a neighborhood where air conditioning is a luxury. So Riley and her mother, Joyce, were furious to learn that City Manager Wayne Cauthen's original budget for this fiscal year suggested leaving three city pools dry, including Ashland Square Park's.
"Enough is enough of taking things out of the 'hood and putting everything else in parts of the city with money," Riley says. She was disgusted when a new $8 million aquatics center called the Springs opened at Tiffany Springs Park, north of the river, in 2006. The center, built through a partnership between Platte County and Kansas City's Department of Parks and Recreation, boasts a "lazy river" feature, two water slides, a pool for swim competitions and a sprayground.
But the city can't fill a measly wading pool at 23rd Street and Kensington?
Joyce Riley threatened to camp out in the mayor's office until the city found money to keep the pools filled. In the end, the Finance and Audit Committee of the City Council eked out a compromise in March that allowed all three pools to stay open.
Mark Bowland, the central regional manager for Kansas City's Parks and Recreation Department, regularly attends the 23rd Street Political Action Committee's monthly meetings. The PAC's members let him know that they wanted to see some resources poured into their ailing parks. City and parks staff know better than to ignore the Rileys, who don't hesitate to use attention-getting tactics. In May, Rachel Riley organized a three-day campout on City Hall's front lawn to protest Kansas City's homicide rate.
Still, Riley was as surprised as anyone when efforts for the parks produced results. "What we asked for, we got," she says. "It's been a beautiful thing."
Over the past two years, Ashland Square Park has seen $85,000 in improvements: revamped tennis courts, new lighting, sidewalks where pavement was lacking. More is on the way this year: a baseball diamond and benches on newly graded land. Riley has noticed the addition of 56 new trees.
Ashland Square and Chelsea Park each received a new playground in 2007, funded through PIAC dollars. Around that same time, 17 additional playgrounds were installed, mostly in the 3rd and 5th districts, as part of Parks and Recreation's $1.2. million Playground Replacement Program, which is funded by general obligation bonds approved by voters in 2004. Lampone expects another 18 playgrounds to go in soon..
Still feeling stung by Cauthen's attempt to drain Ashland Square's pools, Riley demanded that Cauthen see for himself the blight that plagues the city in a swath from 15th Street and Truman to 35th Street and Brooklyn. He accepted the offer, picking up Riley and four other PAC members in his personal vehicle for the drive.
The PAC's next goal is a new community center.
Seeing kids splashing in Ashland's pools makes Joyce Riley smile. "My mother calls it 'little South Africa,'" Riley says. "Thank God it's saved."
Once Bitten: Deb Hipp and Carmen Root
When Deb Hipp showed up at Carmen Root's door three years ago with fliers proposing a leash-free zone for dogs in Waldo's Sunnyside Park, Root thought the idea made perfect sense. Hipp and her group, the Well-Organized Off-leash Friends (WOOF), drafted plans for a three-acre, fenced-in area on the eastern side of Sunnyside Park at 83rd Street and Summit. Local architect Jeremy Schlicher came up with the environmentally friendly design for the group for free. WOOF drew 120 people to its first meeting in November 2006.
On the advice of politically savvy friends, Hipp learned that she should go door-to-door in her neighborhood, gathering signatures in favor of a dog park in order to prove that her idea had support. Hipp got 676 signatures out of 1,300 homes listed on the Here's Waldo Neighborhood Association Web site. She turned the signatures in, with her proposal and plan for the dog park, to the Parks and Recreation's development team.
While Hipp worked to complete these tasks, commissioner positions on the parks board were turning over, from former Mayor Barnes' appointees to the board chosen by Mayor Mark Funkhouser. The new mayor reminded his board of their responsibility: to improve people's satisfaction with the parks.
But an immediate controversy distracted the board. One of the mayor's appointees, Frances Semler, turned out to be involved with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a radical group opposed to illegal immigration.
The ensuing public debate on Semler kicked up a lot of emotion and confusion, so WOOF's leadership decided to let the air settle before presenting the parks board with its plan for a dog park. "While we were nice and waiting, our opponents were going to the board meetings every week and filling their [the commissioners'] heads with all this misinformation," Root says.
In August 2007, around 30 WOOF supporters showed up to the commissioners' meeting hoping to clear up misunderstandings about the group's intentions. Instead, they were informed that the board had just enacted a new policy: Off-leash areas for dogs cannot be erected in parks smaller than 100 acres.
The new rule shot down WOOF's plan like it was a rabid Old Yeller. Sunnyside Park is only 21 acres. WOOF's appeals for a public-comment period on the new policy were gaveled into silence.
WOOF ran into problems because the parks board has no clear policy governing dog parks, says Dona Boley. Boley is on the board of the Kessler Society. That group, named for George Kessler, the city planner and landscape designer who created Kansas City's system of parks and boulevards, sponsors and promotes projects that fall in line with Kessler's original vision (and discourages projects that might clash with those intentions). Its influence carries weight: When Boley opposed early plans for a skatepark in Gillham Park, for instance, the site was reconsidered, and Penn Valley Park became the skatepark's eventual home.
When it comes to dog parks, "other cities have guidelines, which makes it easy," Boley says, then recites the seven bullet points that govern park planners in Seattle for the placement of off-leash parks.
The parks board soon reached the same conclusion. One month after the contentious August 2007 meeting, it put the new dog-park policy on hold and appointed a 12-member task force to study the issue.
Root says the task force told WOOF to expect a report in six months. That was a year and a half ago. At one meeting of the task force that Root observed, only four of the 12 members showed up.
Meanwhile, she says, her group has tried to come up with creative solutions to possible obstacles. Though users of the park would be required to clean up after themselves, a company called Stinkies has offered its scooping services for free. Double gates could provide extra security to keep dogs from getting loose. A fenced area within the outer fence could segregate small dogs from big dogs. "We're bending over backwards to solve every problem," Root says.
Sometimes, though, all the bending in the world won't change a person's mind.
John Hager is the president of 3&2 Baseball Club, a nonprofit league for kids that has used the three diamonds at Sunnyside Park for more than 30 years. He opposes the dog park and will tick off a list of reasons for anyone who asks. But when it comes right down to it, he just doesn't see the point of them in the first place.
"We have 500 kids playing six days a week at 11 parks," Hager says of 3&2, which leases its baseball diamonds from the city each year. "I don't think we ought to be disturbed, frankly."
The report from the Dog Park Task Force Advisory Committee was published on July 17. The committee included Sunnyside Park among those it deemed suitable for off-leash areas. After the board hears the committee's report this week, it will vote on whether to accept the report's recommendations.
The Potter: Michael Oliver
The Westport Roanoke Community Center, at 3601 Roanoke Road, is undergoing a major face-lift because of pottery. For more than 10 years, students of master potter Michael Oliver have called Parks and Recreation and testified at parks board meetings, asking that their tiny classroom be expanded.
"It was on many an agenda," Oliver says. "There just wasn't any money. Then, suddenly, there was PIAC money that worked exactly for this purpose, and the city decided that if we're going to do it, let's do it up right. Two years ago, the city started matching the PIAC funds." The funds, in the ballpark of $1.25 million, according to Lampone, were allocated in April 2008.
So the community center, which hadn't seen a full-scale renovation in 50 years, was closed in July 2008 as construction crews modernized the pottery room, the reception area and the bathrooms; put new doors on the gym (which had been upgraded a couple of years before); installed a new furnace and a new air conditioner; and added a security system.
Oliver, whose knowledge of Roanoke Park arcana is encyclopedic, says the land for the park was donated by its owners with the condition that the area be left a little wild. The park retains the rugged look that its benefactors wanted, but it can't help showing its age. For example, there are the tennis courts. "They're in horrendous condition," Oliver says. "They used to be the best courts in town, but they've been neglected."
Still, the renovated community center should draw people back to the park. It's a little behind schedule — the July 4 opening date has come and gone. Lampone hopes that the renovations will be complete in time for a mid-August opening.
Meanwhile, Parks and Recreation has given Oliver a new assignment: working the front desk and providing some programming at the Tony Aguirre Center on the city's West Side. The West Side has a large Spanish-speaking population, but the Tony Aguirre Center often lacks bilingual employees. Oliver knows Spanish from years he spent in Paraguay, where he met his wife.
He would like to benefit from the new pottery room at Westport Roanoke Community Center, but Oliver says he doesn't know if he'll be back. "I could do so much more there, with my credentials and what I've been blessed with and given," he says.
While the gleaming, glassed-in entrance of the remodeled Westport Roanoke Community Center hints at the treasures inside, it might feel a little empty without Oliver.
Spring Valley Park
The Fishermen: Marvin and Ron Russell
The Parks Board acquired the property for Spring Valley Park, at Bruce R. Watkins Drive and East 27th Street, in the early 1900s, after nearby residents begged the city to take it back from legions of squatters using it as a campsite.
A century later, the land still has an unsavory reputation. It's located in the east region of the city, where citizen-satisfaction survey results from 2008 show that 18 percent of respondents reported feeling unsafe in the parks, even during the day.
The murder of 17-year-old Andre Thomas in Spring Valley Park in 2007 didn't help. Thomas was sitting in the park with another person after dark when someone shot him.
Most of the time, the park appears nearly empty. But when the Sol Pro Bassmasters fishing club holds its annual derby at Spring Valley's lake, more than 100 inner-city kids venture lakeside to learn how to fish.
Sol Pro's founder, Ron Russell, and his brother, Marvin, have hosted the derby for nearly 30 years. They hand out free fishing poles and tackle boxes and teach casting techniques to kids ages 5 to 15. No one leaves empty-handed
Marvin relies on the Parks and Recreation staff to work with the Missouri Department of Conservation to stock Spring Valley's lake with fish before the catch-and-release derby. "It's important to make sure the kids are able to catch fish," Marvin says. "Otherwise, they get bored fast."
The effort costs the club $400 to put on, Marvin estimates. It would be a bargain even if the effort only set one kid out of 100 on a path more connected with the outdoors, with fishing and with the city's parks.
"At least 80, maybe 90 percent of the kids who come out, it's their first time fishing ever," Marvin says. "To help someone like that, it feels good. But, man, it kind of shocks you — like, 'You never fished?'"
Marvin and Ron's father taught them to fish at an early age, on Lake Jacomo. Spring Valley's lake is "more of a pond," Marvin says. Truman and Smithville lakes are Marvin's fishing holes of choice for crappie and catfish.
Lately, Marvin has noticed that a path around the lake has been improved. The bank itself needs restoration, but Marvin praises the department's work.
"I don't know how they always do, but for us and our event, the parks department cleans everything up really nice," Marvin says. "They get the grass cut, the trash dumped, and make sure the shelter house is neat and clean. I can't say anything bad about the park at all."
The Communicator: Scott Wagner
Northeast residents didn't know how much they loved all 27 acres of Budd Park until they heard that a chunk of it could be gone.
When Scott Wagner took over as president of the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association a year ago, the lack of a community center in the Northeast was on his list of issues to tackle. The problem? Though Kansas City's master plan from 1947 called for a community center in this neighborhood, one was never built.
An early survey identified the two best potential sites. One was at Ninth Street and Van Brunt, on a slab of concrete that marks all that's left of the trolley barn where Kansas City once kept its streetcars. The other was inside Budd Park, the second-oldest park in the city, at St. John and Hardesty avenues.
But the mere mention of building on Budd Park was met with "tremendous backlash" from the community, Wagner says. "People went door-to-door with petitions to show the parks board that they didn't want to see Budd Park dug up."
In 2006, Wagner was the treasurer of the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association. That year, he scored a meeting with Mike Herron, director of the Natural Resources Division of Parks and Recreation, and John Fierro, parks board member (and later the board's president). Wagner told them that the Budd Park site was not an option.
"Well, what do people want in Budd Park?" they asked Wagner.
He was stumped. And that's how the Budd Park Committee was born.
Wagner knows that good communication is crucial for getting anything done, and as the head of public relations at Fasone & Partners, he's particularly skilled at it.
"My belief is that they [parks staff] really want help from the community regarding how to apply the very limited resources they have," Wagner says. "Every time we've engaged with them creatively and constructively, we've had that reciprocated." Since the neighborhood residents have started actively discussing their park's future, Wagner says he has seen use of Budd Park go up.
Wagner also realizes that public works require money. "We're not trustee kids by any stretch," he says of himself and his neighbors. "We're not writing the checks."
That's where connections come in. Wagner is the vice president of the Northeast Chamber of Commerce, and he knows that public and private partnerships are what make things like community centers appear. For example, he makes reference to a new community center in Gladstone with impressive aquatic features, which was built with contributions from the City of Gladstone and the North Kansas City School District.
Most people don't have time to meet with Parks and Recreation staff to discuss weed problems or broken swings, nor do they have the connections to scare up corporate sponsorships. Wagner doesn't mind being that guy.
"Not everyone understands how the system works," Wagner explains, "But we can help [Parks and Recreation] do more with less."
One day last summer, a few families who were headed to Budd Park's pool were stopped short by locked gates and an empty basin. No notice explained the pool's sudden closure. Instead of calling the city, they called Wagner. He found out that an unruly pH reading in the water called for the pool to be drained and refilled — a temporary closure and good news for Wagner to give his constituents.
"Not to say we get everything we want," he says, "but when we don't, we get answers as to why."
So the key to getting what you want from your parks is by asking for it. If that fails, get to know your neighbors — they might be good at PR.
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