Atlanta parks: Mayoral candidates offer ideas; study suggests a park authority
By David Pendered
Park Pride discussed Tuesday results of a study that outlined a number of funding opportunities for Atlanta’s parks and recreation, followed by comments from four candidates for Atlanta mayor or their representatives.
The thrust of the report, “Atlanta Department of Parks & Recreation Assessment,” is that Atlanta cannot continue to rely on philanthropy to acquire, develop and maintain park space. By one measure, 37% of all spending on Atlanta’s parks is provided by private donations.
A primary recommendation is for the city to create a parks authority that could sell bonds, backed by the city’s full faith and credit. In addition, the authority could engage in other measures to raise additional revenues for parks.
The program Tuesday continues an effort by parks’ advocates to ensure parks and their funding are a political touchpoint in this year’s campaigns for mayor, city council president and all council posts. The public effort started in May, when The Trust for Public Land released its 2021 ParkScore ranking that showed Atlanta ranks 49th out of 100 cities surveyed. In September, ParkPride and a dozen partners plan to host a candidates’ forum.
To that end, two candidates and representatives of two candidates were invited to pitch their parks ideas at the end of the 90-minute virtual meeting:
- Atlanta City Councilmember Antonio Brown – “We’ve got to get to a point where we aren’t relying on general funds or philanthropic systems. We have to create parks that can also generate revenue that can aid in the advancement of the parks and recreation system.”
- Atlanta City Councilmember Andre Dickens – “[I]n the 1970s and ‘80s we didn’t have as many parks. Because of the leadership of you guys, there is a park with a certain walking distance. That’s what good leadership and partnerships do.”
- Sharon Gay, represented by Walter Brown – “Connectivity.” Bicycle and pedestrian connections to parks need to be improved as part of the broader issue of expanding access to the city’s park system.
- Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore, represented by Rachel Kate – “Public safety is the most important priority, and investing in parks done safely and equitably.” Kate noted she didn’t want to say too much on behalf of the candidate.
These comments came after the main presentation by Charlie McCabe, a parks and placemaking professional who presented findings of a study funded by the Blank Foundation and executed by The Trust for Public Land.
The report advocates for the creation of a parks authority, a recommendation that dates back some 20 years, to Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration. The reasons remain the same – access to money, which this report characterizes as:
- “[P]roperty taxes, user fees, special event permitting, and the ability to issue bonds….”
A parks authority could shift control of parks funding from the political pressures of Atlanta City Hall to a smaller entity of fewer than a dozen members. Terms of appointment powers, remuneration and other matters are details beyond the scope of the report.
George Dusenbury, now with The Trust for Public Land as state director for Alabama and Georgia, a former Atlanta parks commissioner and a three-decade veteran of environmental issues in the region, observed during the meeting that the initial proposal for a parks authority did not garner support from members of the Atlanta City Council.
Other proposals in the report include:
- Increase the parks department’s budget;
- Revise vending contracts for food, drink and sports equipment;
- Expand the retention of facility rental fees by the parks department;
- Leverage other funding sources. One example cited in the report is a collaboration with the Department of Watershed. One projects that represents such a collaboration, but which is not specified in the report, is the use of sewer funds to develop the Old Fourth Ward Park;
- Collaborate with citizens and other agencies to maximize efforts related to parks. One example is the use of Atlanta Public School property as park space at times students are not on campus.