By Guest Columnist AMY PHUONG, commissioner of Atlanta’s Department of Parks and Recreation
A little more than a year ago, I was named commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation by Mayor Kasim Reed and charged with enhancing the City of Atlanta’s parks and recreational programming. From day one, I have made it my top priority to grow and enhance greenspace, increase operational efficiencies and look at all park and recreational development through a broader lens to ensure sustainability for generations to come.
To appreciate where we are today, we must take stock of where we were several years ago.
In 2010, the City of Atlanta experienced the worst financial crisis in more than 80 years. Despite this reality, under Mayor Reed’s leadership, the Department of Parks and Recreation invested an additional $1 million in parks that year. From the beginning, Mayor Reed was fully committed to the department and its mission.
We also reopened all the recreation centers and formed public-private partnerships to invest $5 million in helping Atlanta’s youth realize their full potential. More than 3,500 young people annually receive leadership development training, participate in modern technology courses such as coding, and experience true mentorship in our Centers of Hope. While this investment may have not been a universally-popular choice, the truth is Centers of Hope work.
Eleven-year-old Meyonna, whose mother is still at work when she is dismissed from school, receives homework assistance, a hot meal for dinner and public speaking coaching. This coaching paid off when Meyonna delivered a speech to Mayor Reed, basketball legend and Atlanta Hawks vice chairman Grant Hill and the Kirkwood community at the Bessie Branham Center of Hope basketball court unveiling ceremony.
Another young lady named Mekayla was reading below grade level, but due to our reading development and comprehensive program at the Thomasville Center of Hope, she is now reading above grade level and excelling in her coursework.
These are two success stories among dozens because of our investment in Atlanta’s young people. Nothing is more important than ensuring that our next generation has a fair chance at succeeding in life.
Since 2010, the City of Atlanta has grown its cash reserves steadily, reaching approximately $150 million in the Fiscal Year 2016 budget, which began July 1. Under Mayor Reed, the city has received eight credit rating increases, and has passed six consecutive balanced budgets. And because the city is now financially sound, Mayor Reed was able to invest an additional $3.5 million in the department this year.
Over the course of the last year, we have invested $1 million in newly-added or restored playgrounds, $2 million rebuilding the pool at Rev. James Orange Park, $1 million renovating Anthony Flanagan Memorial Recreation Center, and invested more than $225,000 to build a pedestrian bridge that connects the surrounding neighborhoods to the Rosel Fann Recreation Center. Many of these investments were made in the Southside and Westside neighborhoods of our city.
In addition, the City of Atlanta is supporting expansion of greenspace on our own properties. One example of this is the Bellwood Quarry, which the city purchased to convert for water storage. We will invest $250 million to develop the 300 acres surrounding the reservoir and transform it into the largest park in the city. The park will feature hiking and biking trails, baseball fields, open meadows and an amphitheater.
The City of Atlanta believes that every community deserves quality, safe and well-maintained parks, and my department works to ensure that this happens every day. We have acquired an additional 171 acres of land, including 15 new parks. As a result, 64 percent of Atlanta residents live within a half mile walk of a park – up from 50 percent four years ago – the largest greenspace accessibility percentage jump in more than 40 years.
We have accomplished a great deal, but we can do even more when we work together. We have a strong track record of partnering with non-profit organizations, civic groups, and conservancies; and we encourage other organizations to consider partnering with us to provide exceptional greenspaces for Atlanta residents and visitors.
The end of the year is the perfect time for reflection and the Department of Parks and Recreation will use this opportunity to revisit our existing citywide greenspace plan. We will implement new investment strategies, collaborative development planning and innovative management practices, which will allow our park amenities to receive needed capital. I’m confident that our future projects will result in Atlanta being a leading city for greenspace preservation.