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Louisville: Private Resources for a Public Park

I’ve talked a lot in this blog about private public partnerships (P3s) where a public agency owns the land and a private partner collaborates on design, development, management or programming. But what about when a private partner owns land for a public park? The next few blog posts will focus on places in the country where private leaders are instrumental in developing and running public parks – on private land. In Louisville, 21st Century Parks (21C) is completing one of the largest new parks in the country – over 4,000 acres – that will be owned and managed by a private nonprofit, working in partnership with Louisville Metro Parks.

Louisville 9-26The Parklands is a donor-supported 4,000-acre park system consisting of four major parks — linked by a park drive.  The park is the vision and work of a group of private leaders and visionaries who wanted to complete the system envisioned by Olmsted’s 1891 design.  Almost all of the land for the park has been privately acquired and put under easement – with 21C developing and managing the park for public use.

I talked with Dan Jones recently about the unique partnership in Louisville with private leadership driving the new park.  Jones is the CEO of 21st Century Parks, the private nonprofit that owns and oversees The Parklands. He and his father, David A. Jones, the co-founder of Humana, have been working on the project for nearly a decade. Together, they have secured more than $120 million of private and public funding to fully fund their vision for a new park system.

I asked him about the vision that is behind the partnership they are creating.

“It is a true PPP.  The bulk of the funds came from private donors but the city does things that only the public sector can do. The basic driving point is that there has to be strong leadership from somewhere.  City parks have a certain level of complexity as public spaces.  From the beginning we recognized that if we wanted to get this done there needed to be private leadership who could help move the project along and provide support to the city given all the demands on them and their resources.”

The city has no day-to-day role in the park on the land acquired by 21C.  On the parcels that the city brought into the project 21C negotiated a five-year maintenance agreement.  “It is a lot like the agreement that Central Park Conservancy (CPC) has with New York City with one major difference – every five years when renewal comes up if the city or 21C objects they can get out of it but if there is no disagreement the contract automatically renews.”

Louisville 9-26 (2)As in the lessons from other park conservancies, Jones notes that these kinds of big projects are about more than one partnership and he is learning how to interact with all of them.

“Partnerships are like Venn diagrams and you overlap on certain things but in the rest of the space you and your partner may be completely different – but combined we create political support for future decisions.”

Jones sees the two big challenges of a solely public project is first that they get bogged down easily.  They move more slowly.  The other important weakness is that administrations change and projects of this kind take more than one administration to complete – and to sustain.  “You can find support from one but maybe not the next.  Continuity is a key point in talking about the leadership quotient – and something that private partners can provide.”

Jones acknowledges that their park partnership defines a new paradigm for designing, developing and managing a public park – and that what is working in Louisville might not work elsewhere – but the process of creating a partnership is the same.  “In some ways we are a well-funded nonprofit but we still have to build a constituency from scratch.  We have a strong belief in entrepreneurship and we are intent on learning how to do this.”

In New York City, Jones believes, the people who are complaining about the well-funded parks overshadowing the smaller parks in less wealthy parts of the city are making the wrong argument.  “Rather, they should be looking at ways to help the other parks organize to find ways to create new funding streams. Louisville is watching and saying ‘if that was us, what would we do?’”

“If you drew a line to create a spectrum and you put private on one side and public on the other, one of the first things you need to think about is where you fall on that line.  Throw your bias out the window and understand organizationally and politically where you belong.  You have to walk yourself through a process and be open-minded about what will work in your city.”

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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