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Park system is good, but not great

County and others are examining how to get to great.

November 24, 2012
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Park system is good, but not great
Kent County officials are considering several options to enhance the area’s park system, including generating more income through fee hikes. Photo by Johnny Quirin
The Kent County Parks Department will approach county commissioners soon to ask for some fee changes. One would raise the family season pass from $50 to $60 a year, while another would create an extended-family season pass for $70 a year that would allow grandparents and caregivers to take their kids to a park.

A third request would slightly increase the fees for camping at Wabasis Campground. For sites with electricity, those without electrical service and the “hike-in primitive” sites, the fee would rise by $1 to $30, $20 and $15, respectively. Also, the charge to rent a cottage would go up from $575 to $600.

Lastly, the cost to rent an enclosed shelter for half of a weekend day would increase from $275 to $295.

The fees the department collected last year accounted for 41 percent of its total revenue. Back in 2004, those charges only made up 29 percent of the system’s total income. However, as the Parks Department has increased its revenue base from fees, financial support from the county’s general fund has dropped off quite dramatically over the past eight years.

County data shows the department had revenue of $1.3 million in 2004 and received $3.2 million in funding from general operations. While revenue to the department this year will be closer to $1.76 million, a hike of more than $400,000 from 2004, funds from the county will be $2.27 million, a dip of roughly $500,000 from eight years ago.

“There certainly have been some decreases in the general fund for parks,” said Mary Swanson, an assistant county administrator. “We have not appropriated any general funds for park (land) purchases,” she added.

“There’s not enough money in the pot to pursue land acquisition,” said Parks Director Roger Sabine.

The data also shows the parks system has cut its expenses from $4.55 million in 2004 to $4 million this year.

Commissioner Dick Bulkowski said when park revenues have risen, the county’s support has diminished. But he also noted that as Experience Grand Rapids has netted more income, the county has allocated more money to the organization.

“I think we need to look at that when we talk about the budget,” said Bulkowski.

A multi-jurisdictional parks study the county received in September reported that funding for parks by Kent and its municipalities fell by nearly 6 percent from 2009 through last year. The biggest drops came in Lowell Township at 23.9 percent, the city of Grand Rapids at 18.4 percent, and Kent County, 10.2 percent.

In his firm’s report, D. Kerry Laycock also said that per-capita spending for parks and recreation in the county varied substantially by municipality. For instance, East Grand Rapids spent the most at $155 per resident, and Grand Rapids spent $36. The county spent the least at $6.41.

“What you find is there is a great disparity among what is spent,” said Swanson.

The report also revealed that spending on parks and recreation in the county was less than the national average. At the county level, the national average was $12 per capita — nearly twice as much as had been spent in Kent on an annual basis.

“Kent County and county municipalities are lower. I think we do a good job at what we do, and the consultant found that, too, but we are lower than the national average,” said Swanson.

The report also said Kent’s per-capita spending was less than the average for counties in Michigan, and Kent has more park acres for every 1,000 residents than the national average.

Swanson made those findings known at the last meeting of the county’s Community Collaboration Work Group because the county is investigating how the park systems throughout Kent could be consolidated or at least be more collaborative.

Another finding from the report confirmed why collaborating is difficult here: “Budget challenges make obvious the need for increased collaboration between jurisdictions, but have the effect of reducing the capacity for collaboration.”

“We want to work together, but we don’t have the resources to do that,” said Swanson.

“There are a limited number of efficiencies that can come out of this because many of the efficiencies are already in place,” said Michael DeVries, Grand Rapids Township supervisor.

“There is internal and external collaboration going on,” added Swanson.

The report also indicated there are opportunities for collaborative efforts in planning, marketing, special-needs programming and a few other things such as creating a needs assessment. Swanson pointed out, though, that a municipality might fear losing a recreational priority that is important to its residents by participating in a larger and more unified effort.

At the same time, Swanson said software exists that would let all the systems in the county list their parks and recreational opportunities on one site and could include a countywide reservation desk to let residents and visitors know what’s available. Right now, each system offers its own.

The report concluded that the parks-and-recreation system in the county was “best described as good, not great” and suggested a Kent Communities Park and Recreation Authority be created. State law allows for that.

“I think we’re all tired of hearing ‘create an authority, create an authority,’ but …,” said Swanson.

“I think this is kind of a scathing report. … You’re good, but you’re never going to become great. Until you can put aside your petty little differences, you’ll never become great. I think that’s what it says,” said Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom.

“If you don’t try to get to great, you’re going to get worse,” said Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong.

“If we don’t move forward, somebody else will,” said Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., the region’s economic development organization.

Swanson said county commissioners haven’t taken any action yet on the report’s conclusion, as they’re waiting to hear how some of the municipalities feel about creating a park authority that would oversee all the county systems. “A leader walking with no followers is just a guy taking a walk,” she said.

DeVries said the county’s philosophy differs from the one popular in the townships, and he felt the park systems need to get their stories out there. “I think we need to tell the story of what resources we have. Whether we need an authority is beyond what I get paid. I think there are a lot of ways that we can tell our story better,” he said.

DeVries also said the systems need to do an analysis of what recreational opportunities exist, but one that isn’t limited to the public sector. He felt a study also should include what the private sector offers and what nonprofits like the YMCA have. “We have wonderful resources here, but we haven’t told that story,” he said.

Swanson said the county and a few other municipalities, such as Grand Rapids and Wyoming, have been working on the park situation for about four years. The process began when a county subcommittee suggested looking into what could be done in 2009. “It’s been about a four-year process,” she said.

From her perspective, Klohs felt that whatever would eliminate territorial divisions and make the parks and recreational opportunities better known and more accessible would be an improvement.

“We’re a region of 1.5 million people, a speck on a map,” she said. “The more we can present ourselves holistically, the better off we are.”

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