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North of the 60th Parallel: Anchorage Park Partnerships

I had the opportunity to visit the land of the midnight sun this summer and took time out to meet Beth Nordlund, Executive Director of the Anchorage Park Foundation.  Anchorage is the northernmost city in the U.S. with almost 300,000 residents – 40% of the state’s population.  The city has 500,000 acres of parkland, with 460,000 of it in Chugach State Park.  Bears are regularly sighted in the city and moose are a common sight.  In fact, many moose were grazing along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail where I bicycled during my visit.

The Anchorage Park Foundation was first discussed in 2003 when the city was working on a parks plan under a new mayor – now U.S. Senator Mark Begich – and a new parks director, Jeff Dillon.  Together, with the help of the Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska Community Foundation, they believed the city needed to respond to growing interest in philanthropy on behalf of the park system.

Anchorage1With the support of the Alaska Community Foundation, the city hired a Development Director to promote private giving – that was Beth, hired in 2004.  Until 2010 the Foundation worked under the umbrella of the city, with the Community Foundation as their fiscal sponsor.  By 2010 they had secured enough funding to become their own nonprofit.  “We enjoyed the structure of being a part of the city, and they had skin in the game to raise private dollars.  But it became clear that we needed to be on our own.  Philanthropy is newer in Alaska and we were all learning,” says Beth.

Embracing P3s

In spite of the new offices and the fact that they are now completely separate entities, the close relationship between the city and the Park Foundation remains.  The Foundation has eight core values listed on their website, including two about working with the city – building public private partnerships, and creating a strong public parks department. A whole page of the Foundation’s website is devoted to the City Parks Department and their staff team.  The city also features a link to the Park Foundation.

Due to the latitude, the weather, or just the community spirit, there is a lot of cooperation around parks and recreation.  Beth says, “We don’t have a problem in this city with people being concerned about private partners and parks.”

The staff at the city’s Parks and Recreation Department includes a team of five landscape architects and Beth says, “We are symbiotic.  We rely on them to help us, and together we are putting 36 projects on the ground this summer.  They have to manage project budgets that are supported with both private and public funds.  We often push them out of their comfort zone.”

“We have weekly meetings.  Each project manager with the city has certain things they are in charge of and we are on the phone with them daily.  This summer we are spending $5.5 million in three months.  We have a very tight calendar.  Youth Employment in Parks is only a 10-week program.  If I can’t get a project out to bid by February, it probably won’t happen this year.”

Anchorage 2Oh, yeah. This is Alaska, after all.  In an average winter in Anchorage, the first snow lands in mid-October and it doesn’t begin to thaw until mid-March.  Over the 2011-2012 winter season, Anchorage saw more than 130 inches of snow.  Beth says, “In the winter we do planning, fundraising, and more fundraising and planning; in the fall we focus on the public involvement we need to do to get ready for bid processes and construction work for the following summer.  No one is home in the summer – we do no public meetings then.  If we did, we’d have no turnout. The community council is shut down – people are going fishing!  We have all this glorious sun in the summer.  It’s only in winter when it is dark most of the day that people are looking for things to do inside.”

In the first five years of operation, the foundation/city partnership focused on taking better care of what they have – with volunteers or money that goes to contractors. They’re not doing any maintenance with the city, but are instead focusing on redevelopment and refurbishment – things like painting, sanding, and playground redevelopment. Even the youth employment program teens don’t do maintenance.  “The goal with the employment program is to give them exposure to a bunch of different things. They build trails, wetlands restoration, forestry, and erosion control.”

“We don’t do very much direct work on recreational programming.  We might enable funding but we don’t hire and do the programs.  For youth employment and parks – one of our signature programs that just finished its 7th successful year – we raise the money and the city hires the teens.  But we stay plugged in to the quality of the program.  We hire the program coordinator and make sure the program is mission oriented, but the city runs the program. It’s mostly about keeping an eye on the donors’ investment.”

Their goal, not unlike other private park partners, is to clarify the roles of each partner in order to be clear about the city’s role in taking care of the parks.  They work with the Rasmuson Foundation, which requires the city to match their grants – for example, the Rasmuson Foundation gives the Park Foundation $50,000 a year for youth employment, as long as the city puts in $100,000 for the program.

The P3 Budget

Since the founding of the Park Foundation they have raised $24.2 million – not bad for a place just learning about the value of private-public partnerships and leveraged funding.  “Rasmuson Foundation has been with us since the beginning and they want to see us increase our capacity and build our relationships with individual donors so they are investing in helping us leverage more private funding,” says Beth.  The Rasmuson Foundation matches dollar for dollar any funding that comes from new donors.

The Park Foundation’s annual operating budget is $350,000, with no earned income.  In addition to a great relationship with local private funders and the city – which still contributes annual operating funds to the Park Foundation – the Foundation has a strong partner in the state legislature.  “Park report cards are completed by local park users – who also vote! – for each park and they tell the story of what the parks look like,” says Beth.  “In the end each park gets a grade; the Park Foundation puts a ‘fix-it’ list together and goes to our legislature to ask for funding to do specific work to improve the parks.  And we offer to match any public dollars with private funding.  If we get in the state budget with these line item requests, then we put together a committee – the Very Important Park Committee – with neighbors for each community park and that committee gets to figure out how to spend it.”  I counted over 50 completed park projects through this program.

“We have a unique model that not everyone can replicate. It’s based on one-on-one relationships with our legislators – their constituents have to want the park project.  I met with park advocates in Seattle and Portland last fall and we talked with donors to the Seattle Parks Foundation.   We all operate differently with a reliance on different funding sources.  One year I was at an NRPA meeting and heard about a lot of earned income strategies with park partners running facilities.  We are not running any facilities.  We are good at education, marketing, promotion, money management, project management…”

The Park Foundation also gets some federal dollars through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the U.S. Forest Service for the youth employment program or for restoration or forestry money – mostly habitat improvement, “…we have salmon going right through our city!”

A New Focus

A few years ago a group of mothers came to the city and the Parks Foundation to ask about accessible playgrounds.  “We discovered there were none in the whole state,” says Beth, “so we decided to start a campaign – Parks for All – to raise funds to create accessible play spaces.”

They raised $500,000 for Cuddy Family Midtown Park, Anchorage’s own Central Park – with high costs mostly due to the expensive sub-surface required.  Rasmuson Foundation kept an eye on their efforts and when they saw the strong response from the community and the successful fundraising effort, they too came in to help finish the first playground.  Most recently, the Rasmuson Foundation proposed a new five-year grant to create more accessible playgrounds.

“After this summer’s 36 projects are over we will do a community needs assessment looking at what we need to do with our parks and playgrounds for accessibility.  We’ll use Rasmuson funding for the assessment and engage the disability services community – a whole new community of users for us.”

Anchorage 4“We want to understand what is needed in terms of new technologies and designs.  Every time we make a park upgrade, we want to think about accessibility. Maybe not a half million dollars at every park, but what can be done in bite-sizes?”

Barrier-free playgrounds are only one initiative for the Park Foundation in the coming years.  They are just starting to raise endowment funds for the operation and the health of their organization.  They have had great success in building donor relationships; endowments are an opportunity for people to see their gifts – their project investments – sustained.  “It’s pretty bold and big for us right now,” says Beth.  “Our organization is not yet sustainable.  It’s mostly money in and money out.  We are incredibly effective and efficient but we know this way of working won’t last forever.  The job of keeping up 224 parks will not be finished any time soon – nor will the need for public and private investment go away.”

Growing their partnerships and outreach is another thing that Beth is working on, particularly with the business community.  Currently, they are seeking support for a trails initiative to support the city’s 250 miles of trails.  Visit Anchorage and the Anchorage Economic Development Council have launched their Live Work Play initiative with the goal of making Anchorage the best place to live and play by 2025, and the business community has embraced the trails program as a core focus. “The business community partnership will be helpful with marketing. They will own the initiative – and we will move into a new kind of partnership working with a different segment of the community – small business owners.”

The Key Message

“Community engagement is central to what we do…otherwise you are irrelevant.  It has to be about what the people want or it isn’t worth it,” says Beth.

Anchorage5Two of the Foundation’s programs exemplify that: their challenge grants and their partnership in the Neighborhood Parks Fix-it program.  Challenge grants are made every few years.  “This is a super effective way of working with the community and our park users.  We give groups up to $40,000 for a park project and they match our funding with cash, in-kind, volunteer labor, etc.”  It leverages community investment, and “…brings people out of the woodwork for all kinds of park uses.  We hear from lots of groups we have never heard of before.”  The Park Foundation grants funds to the groups if they are incorporated; if they are volunteers, the foundation acts as their fiscal sponsor and helps them raise money.

Beth says that, “It is through this program that we triple the investment of the Rasmuson Foundation.  We get other people engaged with the park foundation.  If anybody in the community foundation world can offer the same thing to a parks foundation – this is a great kind of program. The investment and risk is low and the rewards are great.”

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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