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P3s and Parks: Different than the Rest?

A recent New York Times story on BP, the London-based oil and gas company, used the problems facing BP and its origins as a public company to argue that in some cases public control can outperform private – citing in particular the challenge of balancing the goals of public interest and private profit. There is a lot of talk these days about the challenges of P3s, including public agencies like the city of Chicago losing money on its privatization of parking or challenges in making the transit partnership work in Denver.  These projects raise the question of whether the inclusion of private partners and funding results in more efficient or innovative projects…or not.

Most P3 projects in the news these days are projects that include the designing, building, financing and operation of infrastructure projects.  Across the country, public private partnerships are being used to build bridges, roads, transit systems, and water systems. The use of private finance – or the prospect of cost-savings – is the linchpin of these P3 arrangements.

In these cases, P3s represent a fundamentally different way for governments to deliver infrastructure projects and related services. They require heavy involvement and reliance on the private sector, and the new relationship presents new challenges to public agencies that aren’t always up for the job – from negotiating the contract to long-term financial management.  Are P3s for parks different?

The central question for park department leaders and locally elected officials when contemplating a P3 is will it ultimately serve the public interest?  And secondly, what’s the best model for designing and managing the partnership?

I think park P3s are different and so far have shown greater success.  Let’s review the basics:

1.    Parks are publicly owned and key decisions remain public.

Government has two roles as a decision maker and a doer.  Most agree that the policy and decision-making role should stay with government, but once decisions have been made about service delivery, capital projects or park programs, there are a variety of ways to deliver it, including via private partners.  The goal and responsibility of government is to fairly and competently manage private sector involvement – and to ensure the active engagement of the public.  The key here is that the public has entrusted the city to make decisions about the use of the land in a way that benefits all city residents.

Park conservancies are given the responsibility of managing public spaces but they do not have the power to unilaterally alter the policies governing these spaces.

2.    Park conservancies and city park departments have a shared mission, shared responsibilities and flexibility.

In a park partnership the partners share in making all of the critical decisions involved in running the park – as defined by their operating agreement; the tasks are clear-cut and it’s possible to define clear roles. Both partners share a common vision and mission.  They are also in a relationship that allows both to adapt to changing circumstances.

3.    Park conservancies asked to steward a park are mostly nonprofit organizations.  Park projects are about cash infusions not profit-making.

Let’s face it, park conservancies are not in the job because they’re going to make money.  The cash raised through events, concessions, sponsorships and donations goes to the park – and fundraising for operations and capital is not easy, mostly philanthropic and hard to sustain.

Parks and park systems must constantly evolve to stay vital, relevant and well-used, all while balancing a bottom-line, which gets harder every year.  In order to do this we are seeing various forms of quasi-public and quasi-private partnerships emerging, the goal of which is to keep the public’s interest as a priority.

John Crompton in writing about park partnerships says that the best way to secure the future of park and recreation services is to broaden the base of people who invest effort, energy and resources into their well-being – in other words empowering citizens through involvement with park managers.  Nonprofit conservancies or special districts have the singular focus that makes them eager for community investment; and, they have a built-in accountability in that if they don’t do their job right, philanthropic and event support will go away.

In an article last year in Parks and Recreation magazine, R.J. Cardin, director of Maricopa County’s Department of Parks and Recreation, sees the upside of trying new things in his county, where private partners contribute about 20 percent to Maricopa’s overall park system.

We do many public-private partnerships at Maricopa County.  Much like a good stock portfolio, we have tried to diversify our service delivery system. We look to the private provider to not only come in and provide service but also to invest in the parks by putting capital development into the parks.  In return, our residents benefit through additional amenities and we generate revenue that can be used for other services and programs. We look to our residents and visitors to express their facility and program needs and we find the most efficient and effective manner to provide for that need when feasible.

Having private partners of course doesn’t mean that public agencies give up on enterprise ventures, ways to attract new revenue or ways to run a more efficient department.  But the job is getting harder as park users have greater expectations about their parks and demand more kinds of services – which leads to a rise in capital costs for developing and maintaining infrastructure.  The goal out there seems to be that when it makes sense, engage partners and plan for learning – there are still lessons to be learned out there in an effort to find out what’s the best way of getting the job done.

KBlahaKathy Blaha writes about parks and other urban green spaces, and the role of public-private partnerships in their development and management. When she’s not writing for the blog she consults on advancing park projects and sustainable land use solutions.

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2 Responses

  1. This theory that park P3s are different from, and immune to the problems of, business P3s unfortunately ignores the facts on the ground.

    Parks may remain publicly “owned” but key decisions are easily privatized. In Boston, the new downtown Central Artery Greenway is still owned by the state, but a so-called Conservancy, ushered in by the Artery Business Committee to guard the interests of the park-corridor real estate industry, took over the management, capturing power by promising to do everything with private funding. This Conservancy then managed to get themselves legislation handing them a land lease (they tried to get a 99 year lease, effectively a gift of the whole parkland to a private group, but activists got it limited to 5 years with renewal options), and half of any budget they dream up – currently five million and slated to go as high as eleven million, to manage a 12-acre park (median strip) – the size of a dozen suburban house lots. They’ve hired up a large and richly paid bureaucracy (the Exec Director recently was forced out in disgrace) tasked mainly with drumming up revenue-making projects, and sub-let the actual park maintenance to a non-landscape-specialized company, paying a half-million dollars a year in a contract that reveals no break-down information to the public. In fact, the lack of transparency of this 501c3 became such an issue that legislation was just passed to make them subject to the Open Meeting and Public Record Laws. They have rejected the offer of free landscape design, plant materials, and planting labor from a neighborhood would-be Friends group, which had to fight for months just to get their permission to plant some daffodil bulbs in barren areas; they’d rather the space look derelict than share power and show that they are dispensable. They allowed Occupy Boston to stay on one area, touting their welcome of free speech and assembly, but evicted the demonstrators when they wanted to occupy another area, on the claim that it would muss up the landscaping. (When they first started, they had made a map of “free speech zones” – marked by a few red dots on the park map!) They zealously drive out homeless people, to protect their patrons’ property values.

    Another example: The Friends of the Boston Common and Public Garden started out as an advocacy-only group, proudly abstaining from swaying public policy; now they’ve become a huge funding group, and simply by having the money (and socially powerful donors) to get what they want done, they de facto make the key decisions. One of these has been to hire Dan Biederman, privatizer of NYC’s Bryant Park and CEO of a couple of NYC Business Improvement Districts that privatize the public streets, to consult on procuring corporate sponsors for the Boston Common. I repeat: corporate sponsors for the Boston Common. Like banks and airlines. And the Common is also being privatized by nearby colleges, which contribute money for “maintenance” (like converting ballfields to astroturf) so they can capture the Common sports areas as their own athletic facilities.

    So public ownership does not protect public policy; the decisions are made by those who give (or promise) money. If you want a public-private relationship where key decision are made publicly, don’t have a partnership with a private “entity”; have a contract with a private service provider.

    Park operators certainly can be about profit-making. Bryant Park is now simply an outdoor commercial event rental venue, bringing in huge amounts of money. It doesn’t distribute the money to shareholders, but it pays the boss very well; and it subordinates public use to private use. The Brooklyn Bridge Park is an example of directly making profit on parkland by capital development on a portion of it, with the pacifying promise of “spinning off” money for adding amenities. The Mayor of Boston gave away City Hall Plaza for a private hotel/garage development that promised to spin off enough money to take care of the rest of the plaza (a few acres of paving).

    Partnerships must have shared goals and values; government and business have opposite goals and values. It’s ok for business to do their job: scramble for money; but the government has to regulate and oversee to protect the public interest – no private company will do that job. If the government is also a business partner, it has a conflict and can’t carry out its fiduciary responsibilities.

    Public parks, and other public services, are tax-paid government responsibilities; they should not have to support themselves through various forms of prostitution.

    The advocates for P3s accept and perpetuate the myth that government is broke and/or incompetent and so the answer lies in more privatization. This is not true; government has been corrupted, by the very private interests with which it now “must” partner. If governments managed their money properly – e.g, stopped giving away hundreds of billions of dollars annually in corporate welfare, slashed the bloated military budget, established a single-payer health care system to eliminate the parasitic insurance industry, and created more tax brackets to mirror the exponential differentials in income that have developed over the last 30 years, we’d have more than enough money to provide all the public services we need, in ways fully transparent and accountable to the public.

    If we want good government, we have to reform it. We won’t get it by running the government like a business, or as a business, or for a business. This is a task for citizens, not consultants.

  2. Shirley,
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m sorry to hear that you do not see the park partnerships in Boston as working to residents’ best interests. Your list of concerns generally captures those key areas that park conservancies must work at: transparency, accountability, inclusiveness – as well as being good park stewards and managers – in order to make a partnership work. But the proof of success is not in parsing the partnership but in whether the parks ‘work’ under these partnerships even if they are a struggle to get right – things like the number of users, donors, and partners, and how well the site is maintained as a beautiful, safe and attractive place to go. Are people coming to the park? The goal of P3s is to create a broader and stronger constituency and to support a public desire that can’t be paid for or adequately managed without private partners. For all the challenges you see, the parks you cite are open to the public with a full slate of improvements and programs that wouldn’t exist but for the conservancies and ‘friends of’ groups. It’s not an easy job but P3 managers take responsibility for a park and all its challenges when no one else does – they are leaders, stepping up and taking all the good and bad that comes with leadership. I don’t see many alternatives.

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