Uniting for Atlanta's parks: (left to right) Park Pride Chair Kristy Rachal, Parks Commissioner Justin Cutler; Mayor Andre Dickens and Park Pride's Michael Halicki at the Atlanta Botanical Garden (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

By Maria Saporta

On the eve of its annual conference, Park Pride announced a $12.8 million capital campaign – its first-ever multi-year comprehensive effort.

The “Parks for All” campaign highlights several key points:

  • In its 34-year history, Park Pride has earned the respect of top funders and the City of Atlanta – both the administration and City Council. All those entities that have stepped up to support Park Pride and the campaign.
  • Park Pride’s focus on equity has emphasized granting of dollars to park groups in lower-income communities.
  • The pandemic has reinforced the importance of parks and green space to the well-being of residents.
  • The commitment by the philanthropic community in parks and green space now puts the spotlight on the City of Atlanta to recommit increased funding for maintenance and operations – areas that foundations are reluctant to support.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we are doing some of our best work,” said Michael Halicki, Park Pride’s executive director for nearly a decade. “We are meeting the moment where people have come to appreciate the importance of parks where they live. Our mission is to engage communities to activate the power of parks.”

Michael Halicki, executive director of Park Pride, makes a toast at a reception the night before the 2023 Parks & Greenspace conference. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

The first major campaign gifts came in 2021. The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation gave Park Pride its largest grant to date – $3 million. The City of Atlanta followed suit with $2 million to go to parks in lower-income communities.

Since then, Park Pride has been in a quiet phase of fundraising.

“We have already secured $8.5 million, nearly 70 percent of our goal,” said Kristy Rachal, Park Pride’s board chair, at the 22nd annual Parks & Greenspace conference on March 27 at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Rachal also noted that Atlanta’s 2022 ParkScore index jumped up 22 spots in one year to No. 27 among the 100 largest U.S. cities. And that 77 percent of Atlantans live within a 10-minute walk of a park.

“We have to get this right,” Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens told a pre-event gathering Sunday night – pledging to increase the percentage of Atlantans living within a 10-minute walk of a park. “You can count on me as a partner. We couldn’t do it without you. We are going to continue to get even better.”

The “Parks for All” campaign includes $8.56 million (two-thirds) going directly to the city’s parks, according to Halicki. The rest of the campaign would go to new programming ($720,000); and $3.52 million would go to increasing capacity, including adding staff giving Park Pride a total of 18 employees.

Atlanta Parks Commissioner Justin Cutler at reception the night before the 2023 Parks & Greenspace conference. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

Rachel Maher, Park Pride’s director of communications and policy, said the campaign will include the launch of the Parks Stewardship Academy, an annual leadership development program for about a dozen people involved in Friends’ groups and smaller conservancies. In all, Park Pride works with about 100 community groups in the City of Atlanta and another 60 in DeKalb County. Most of those organizations have received support from Park Pride over the years – either specific grants or administrative support.

To complete the campaign, another $4.3 million needs to be raised, Maher said. The goal is to wrap up the campaign by the end of the year.

On the plus side, Park Pride currently is enjoying one of the strongest relationships it has ever had with the City of Atlanta, Halicki said, mentioning both Mayor Dickens and Justin Cutler, Atlanta’s parks commissioner for the past seven months.

“We are now working with the city and this administration rather than working around the city,” Halicki said. “This administration, this commissioner and this mayor have set a new bar for working towards great parks.”

Park Pride also has been working to develop community park leaders throughout the city.

“We are trying to get communities to be the change they wish to see in the world and help them realize they are not alone,” Halicki said. “We are building a community of parks advocates who are working together.”

That’s why Park Pride has become a frequent recipient of the Woodruff Foundation’s generosity. Since 1997, the Foundation has made $13.14 million in grants to Park Pride.

Ribbon-cutting of Mattie Freeland Park in October 2022. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

“Following Robert Woodruff’s lead, we have invested in parks, greenspace and public spaces all over Atlanta,” said Russ Hardin, president of the Woodruff Foundation. “Park Pride has been our vehicle to invest in neighborhood parks, pocket parks and parks throughout the city. They are good for our environment and our health. They provide recreational opportunity. They literally bring the community together. They increase property values, and they make Atlanta a much more livable place.”

A prime example is English Avenue’s Mattie Freeland Park, which had its official grand opening in October.

The park is named after the late Mattie Freeland, who wanted to turn a vacant piece of land next to her home into a garden and park.

“We started using the space many years ago, removing all the tires and waste from the lot,” said Billie Walker, who is now the community leader for Mattie Freeland Park. “It was the vision of Miss Mattie and Stephen Causby.”

Walker said the community has made sure everyone is welcome in the park, including the homeless, who are fed during cookouts held in the park.

Zeist Foundation’s Atiba Mbiwan(and Park Pride board member) with Dr. Mironda Williams, grand-daughter of the late Mattie Freeland. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

“We have been able to celebrate everyone using the park and being safe in the park,” Walker said adding that the park is “in the hood,” making it even more of an asset in the area. “I want the kids to continue to have a safe place for them to play.”

Walker also said: “I’ve learned to take care of my park. That’s what Miss Mattie would have wanted us to do.”

That’s a story Park Pride and its backers would love to see replicated all over the city. The “Parks for All” campaign will invest in capital improvements in parks. Separate from the campaign, seven Atlanta city councilmembers allocated a total of $2.8 million to Park Pride to spend in their respective districts.

While investing in new and existing parks is welcome, the campaign does not address a critical issue – the maintenance and operations of additional green space, which foundations see as the purview of the government.

“We would love to see us continue to improve and expand our parks system,” Hardin said. “But that’s expensive. We can’t do that unless the city decides it wants to fund and operate a world-class parks system. The BeltLine is a 22-mile-long park. The Westside Park is a huge new park in Atlanta. We have got to be realistic about what it costs to keep up our existing and expanded park space.”

Halicki and Park Pride advocates have been hammering on that point at City Hall.

Currently, 26 percent of the positions at the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation are unfilled, and 60 percent of those are unfunded positions. It would cost the city $2 million to just fund and fill the vacant positions to get to the level of funding before the pandemic.

Billie Walker, community leader with Friends of Mattie Freeland Park. (Photo by Kelly Jordan.)

“We are looking for more than pre-pandemic funding as success,” said Halicki, adding that part of the program is inadequate pay for park employees. “We need the administration to invest. Maintenance has been part of the conversation. We need to step up park maintenance.”

During the conference, parks leaders from around the country said the lack of funding for maintenance and operations is not unique to Atlanta.

In fact, Atlanta stands out as having especially strong philanthropic support for parks. But park advocates are concerned additional private support will be hard to raise until there’s a greater public commitment to maintenance and operations.

“We hope our funders will continue to stay with us,” said Halicki, explaining why Park Pride has been so focused on “bringing in additional public dollars.”

Hardin gave a resounding endorsement of Park Pride’s efforts.

“Our investment in Park Pride has been among the best investments we have made in recent years,” Hardin said. “Michael is a terrific leader.”

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Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news...

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