Funding can only go so far when it comes to improving local parks. That makes for tough decisions.People, Parks, Power

Editor's note: This is the sixth in a series of articles — People, Parks & Power — that dives into the commitment of local people working to make long-term, systemic changes to positively affect greenspaces and — in turn — the overall health and well-being of Springfield's Southside and beyond.

When Neal Browning visits his cousins in Tennessee, one of the first things they do is visit a local park.

Parks contribute to a sense of pride within a community, says Browning, the co-founder, board member and treasurer of 1159 South Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit group working to develop and redevelop southwest Springfield.

On the flip side, he says it is demoralizing to compare today’s parks in south Springfield to the thriving places they used to be. Those memories contribute to the feedback local officials receive regarding the parks.

“This is coming from their hearts and really means something to them,” Browning says.

Funds dedicated to local parks, however, often are earmarked for specific purposes, making them in short supply for many projects desired by residents and community groups.

“We don’t have a lot of extra money,” says Leann Castillo, executive director of the National Trail Parks and Recreation District and interim executive director of the Clark County Park District while the two organizations put the final touches on their merger.

Combined, the park system oversees 30 parks, and some 2,000 acres of parkland, 50 miles of multi-use trails and roads and 160 acres of wetland. The system also includes a baseball stadium, water park, spray ground, ice arena, 2 climbing parks, 17 playgrounds and more.

Much of the park system’s $3.3 million budget comes from a 0.6-mill parks and greenspace levy that Castillo says brings in about $1.3 million each year. The 10-year levy was approved in 2015.

Those dollars run the operations of the parks, trails and greenspaces, from the staff who manage them to the toilet paper for the bathrooms, she says, adding that it doesn’t fund other expenses, such as Splash Zone.

The levy funds only about 75 percent of those operational needs, with the remainder coming from the general fund.

Also included in the total budget is a $1.1 million contract the park system has with the city to maintain city-owned parks and provide recreation services. There also are smaller contracts with the Springfield Conservancy District and the county. Program fees, facility rentals, grants and more also produce some income.

Community partnerships have enabled some improvements, such as a playground at Snyder Park completely funded by the Springfield Rotary Club, she says.

Davey Moore Park, 600 S. Western Ave., is in the process of getting updates, including a skatepark and boxing-themed playground. Work on the park began in March, Castillo says. The $750,000 improvements were paid for by Community Development Block Grant funding from the city’s community development office, and the project was spurred by the results of Springfield’s Engaged Neighborhood Plan.

“We’ve been trying to do projects in all of our parks,” Castillo says.

She says there have been requests for a skatepark for years, but Browning says more input from the demographics being served at the park should have been considered before any decisions were made.

The Conscious Connect, the local nonprofit group that was awarded a national People, Parks, and Power grant worth $500,000 to promote park equity, recently released the results of its own survey that showed that residents largely in the 45505 and 45506 zip codes weren’t aware of the planning process behind the Engaged Neighborhood Plan or chose not to participate in it.

While Castillo wishes there were more funds for more projects, often money is earmarked for specific things or needed for specific upgrades, she says, and when new attractions or amenities are added, future costs also must be considered. What’s more, the park district doesn’t want to continually increase fees in fear that residents won’t be able to afford to participate.

“We have to be strategic in what we do,” she says.

Pocket parks, such as those created by The Conscious Connect, aren’t under the purview of the parks system, Castillo says, although they complement what the park system is doing.

“I think they’re great, and they serve a great purpose in the neighborhoods,” she says.

Browning, the co-founder of a nonprofit group working to develop and redevelop southwest Springfield, notes that when pocket parks are competing for funds with large parks, most likely neighborhood pocket parks will get shortchanged. But they still have needs, he says.

The demographics of the neighborhood surrounding a park also should be considered before determining park updates and new amenities, he says. A neighborhood with more youth may want basketball courts, for example, while those with more older residents may want benches with good views, he says.

He acknowledges that the park system often has its hands tied by restrictions, and he believes that there should be a greater push to inform private organizations and other potential funders what improvements specific parks need rather than relying largely on the funders themselves to design their own park projects.

“I think you would get better results,” he says.

In particular, southside parks could use additional signage as well as solar lights to keep them illuminated even when the sun goes down, Browning says. In general, funding could be used to add better amenities and make the southside parks more attractive.

Castillo says that it is a balance to place programs throughout the parks. Residents across Clark County want the programs they are interested in to be close by, but not every program can be in every community, Castillo says, noting that a flag football program was recently moved to Davey Moore Park.

The park system produces a quarterly programming guide – the summer guide is delivered to every Clark County household and is scheduled to arrive in May – and uses social media to communicate as well.

“We’re struggling with: How do we get the word out to everyone in the different forms they want to see it in?” Castillo says.

Castillo knows that some in the community don’t feel that their voices are being heard and that there can be a mistrust of public officials. And the issues surrounding parks and balancing the community’s needs, wants and expectations are not unique to Springfield or Clark County.

“You have to become engaged and involved in your neighborhoods to make a difference,” she says.

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Read more articles by Diane Erwin.

Diane Erwin is a freelance writer and former reporter for the Springfield News-Sun. A graduate of Ohio State University, her articles have appeared in a number of publications in Springfield and Dayton. In addition to her journalism background, she has worked in marketing and written copy for businesses throughout the country. In her spare time, she likes to read, dream about Schuler’s donuts, and travel near and far with her husband and two children.