City's cash-strapped parks turn to private sector for ideas, manpower

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

Facing shrinking tax revenue, Mayor Greg Ballard believes businesses can pick up much of local government’s slack—either voluntarily or by contract—when budgets are slashed.

His management philosophy is now being tested in the Indianapolis Parks and Recreation Department.

Last month, the city formally requested private-sector ideas on how Eagle Creek Park and Riverside Regional Park each could cut costs and generate more revenue.

The so-called request for information detailed both parks’ underused facilities, such as their retreat centers, marinas, and the Major Taylor Velodrome. Ballard, a Republican, wants businesses to operate and possibly upgrade them. If the effort is successful, he’ll repeat it in other city parks.

Meanwhile, the city is addressing some of its parks’ basic infrastructure needs by taking a page from the philanthropic playbook—or perhaps former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s privatization textbook—pitching repair and replacement projects to local corporations as charitable opportunities.

Last week, for example, Ballard joined employees of locally based cell phone distributor Brightpoint Inc. to celebrate completion of its annual Week of Caring event. In previous years, Brightpoint employees rolled up their sleeves for not-for-profits like Habitat for Humanity. This year, they spent their week restoring the 21-acre Watkins Park.

Employees of Indianapolis-based Brightpoint Inc. spent a recent week making more than $100,000 in improvements and upgrades at Watkins Park at the intersection of Fall Creek Parkway and Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Street. (Photo Courtesy Indy Parks & Recreation)

It’s an approach born of necessity. Ballard has cut all of Indianapolis government’s budgets—outside public safety—5 percent in each of the last two years. He plans another round of 5-percent cuts for 2010.

“New revenues through partnerships and more efficient use of assets is basically gravy, if you’re a department head,” explained Michael Huber, Ballard’s director of enterprise development. “In 2010, we’re confident we’ll get hundreds of thousands of dollars in value. And once we [completely] roll out the program, it may even be low millions.”

Deferred maintenance

Indianapolis has 11,140 acres of public green space in 206 parks. It also has 232 athletic fields, 126 playgrounds, 121 tennis courts, 58 miles of greenway trails, 21 aquatic centers, three dog parks and a velodrome. In 2007, Democratic Mayor Bart Peterson’s last year in office, the city budgeted $25.5 million for the parks department’s operations.

Ballard’s proposed parks budget for 2010: $21.8 million, or $3.6 million less.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Indianapolis has a long list of “deferred maintenance” capital projects in its parks that Indy Parks Director Stuart Lowry said add up to $100 million. But it’s a fuzzy figure because the Ballard administration isn’t certain every listed project is actually necessary.

For example, Lowry pointed to a bridge repair at Eagle Creek whose original price tag was $700,000 for complete replacement. Instead, Ballard’s team engineered a cheaper solution for the pipe at the root of the problem. Rather than completely unearth it, Eagle Creek retrofitted the pipe’s interior with a durable sleeve similar to a stent. Final cost: $150,000.

“Our push really is, wherever we can make smart choices, that’s what we’re doing,” Lowry said. “Sometimes on simple things, but that was over a half-million-dollar savings.”

At Watkins Park during the week of Aug. 24, 125 Brightpoint employees donated 1,200 hours of work. Outdoors, they mulched, trimmed and planted. They also cleaned carpets and installed new kitchen appliances in the park’s community center. And they created both a computer lab and a new fitness center. Brightpoint also organized nearly a dozen other companies’ in-kind donations for the park on Martin Luther King Jr. Street at 24th Street.

Ballard’s press release touts Brightpoint’s contribution as worth $100,000. But Lowry said its actual impact is even greater. Among other improvements, Brightpoint transformed an unused tennis court into a basketball court, which the parks department expects to be far more popular with neighborhood kids. The bonus: Lowry can now erase $140,000 in deferred maintenance for that tennis court from his list.

He hopes to replicate those results throughout the parks system. Lowry’s already attracted a handful of other corporate volunteers. In January, for example, employees of locally based Citizens Energy Group donated 1,600 hours to Brookside Park Family Center at East 16th Street and Sherman Drive, making $50,000 in improvements. The effort honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and was tagged “Sharing the Dream.”

Also this year, locally based Shiel Sexton Co. sponsored a baseball diamond at Hawthorne Park near West Washington Street and Belmont Avenue, Lowry said. And Ivy Tech Community College has taken over cleanup, maintenance and improvements of Barton Park on Capitol Avenue near 23rd Street.

Expect more public-private parks partnership in the second half of Ballard’s term.

“We just want to get the model started and get it started right to see what return we can get for the taxpayers,” Lowry said.

Don’t tell Brightpoint President Mark Howell the parks department is getting all the upside in their deal. He said the company’s annual Week of Caring pays real business dividends. For starters, it signals Brightpoint’s ethics to the giants in the cell phone industry, like Nokia, Sprint, T-Mobile and Motorola.

It’s also a “huge morale builder,” Howell said, creating an opportunity for Brightpoint executives to work shoulder to shoulder with folks from its warehouses. And it creates a healthy internal rivalry, he said, as departments strive to outdo one another for each year’s philanthropic cause.

“I was just unbelievably amazed at how well the partnership between the city, Indy Parks and Brightpoint went,” said Howell, whose company has 1,500 local employees. “In terms of public-private partnerships, this was seamless.”

Parks as profit centers?

What businesses won’t do voluntarily Ballard’s administration hopes they’ll take on for a solid profit opportunity.

The city’s request for information—developed by locally based Venture Real Estate Services and released Aug. 19—sets broad parameters for privatization of parks facilities. It puts every venue inside Eagle Creek and Riverside on the block for private management. (except the golf courses, which already have private operators).

That could mean new management of marinas, billboards on the Major Taylor Velodrome and a formal business plan for Soap Box Derby Hill soon.

Lisa Leming, the parks department’s senior manager of revenue facilities, doesn’t expect to formally divest any assets—just their operation.

“Back when Mayor Goldsmith was here, we did put a lot of stuff out for bid,” she said. “Then we took a lot of things over. We’re putting a lot of things now back out.”

If the Ballard administration is successful, the intermingling of business and local government won’t stop with parks.

Huber, the mayor’s enterprise development director, said the same strategy can be applied elsewhere. He said neighborhood groups, for example, regularly approach the mayor’s office about taking over infrastructure and beautification projects that once would have been paid for with tax dollars.

Under Ballard in the days to come, businesses will increasingly organize and fund such efforts.

“As I’ve said to [neighborhood leaders] many times, it’s not an advertising thing. We’re not trying to make public spaces look like NASCAR,” Huber said. “But we do see a future in which corporations make contributions. We should be able to present an entire menu of projects that are achievable and can really help the city.”

Cathy Burton, president of the Marion County Alliance of Neighborhood Associations, said she’s open to greater corporate involvement, but wants to make sure government retains strict oversight.

She said she doesn’t want Ballard’s administration to become a replay of Goldsmith’s.

“When there was a move toward privatization before [in the 1990s], I do not believe it was well-handled. Some private contractors didn’t perform work, but were paid, anyway,” Burton said. “I think they were letting the fox watch the henhouse.”•



  • A great idea to raise revenue at Eagle Creek Park would be for the Park managers to actually RETURN the phone calls of organizations interested is renting the park. What a concept!

Post a comment to this story

We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by

facebook - twitter on Facebook & Twitter

Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ on Facebook:
Follow on TwitterFollow IBJ's Tweets on these topics:
Subscribe to IBJ
  1. Uh, sorry Johnnie, but you are incorrect. Despite the assertions by yourself and various defenders and captains, sports attendance is NOT off significantly at most sporting events in the US. Variances in attendance has been in the range of single digits, both + & - for years now. MLB has had most of its best overall attendance nubers in the last decade, and that trend has been consistent for most major sporting events. The number one issue cited by most fans when asked about attendance is the overall cost of attending. The presence of HD and big screen televisions in home doesn't even register, as a factor for not attending an event. VALUE in the product is the key, and apparently is something lacking in the current ICS. What other explanation is there when with what is routinely touted as the "best" racing on the planet, fans are staying away in DROVES. A "close" title battle into the last event at Fontana, with the "cars and stars" of the ICS, and who showed up? MAYBE 8K. Sorry, but HD TV isn't to blame for that kind of fan apathy.

  2. Do you need finance to establish your business ? Are you interested in getting a loan at 3% from our private company? If so please Email: suntrust_oil@blumail.org

  3. If she was worth the $ the public outcry over direct tv dropping them would have kept them on their dishes as we have seen with other companies. I too quit watching channel 13 after she showed up since I left channel 8 because of her all show rather than production results. When Randy on 8 corrected her she had a big head and incorrectly challenged his correction for pronunciation of a city. Other antics while she matures was too much for me with her very inaccurate forecasts. All the forecasters were predicting rain until Thursday except Chris. They predicted sunny on Thursday but instead of rain until Thursday upon which the sun would finally make it out in full glory Chris was right on the money just as I too predicted looking at the radar on weather.gov. One thing I love about Angela is the fear you can see in her every time it thunders in the winter. It far exceeds the entertainment value of her body language (high heel noise drags, depression, etc) when her forecasts are so incorrect. Her hair stands on end, you have to see it!!!

  4. Good Day, Apply For A Loan I am Mr Fernadez Antonio, a private Loan lender and a cooperate financial for real estate and any kinds of business financing. I also offer Loans to individuals, Firms and cooperate bodies at 3% interest rate We offer any kind of loans. email us via fernadezloaninvest@outlook.com LOAN APPLICATION FORM First name:......................... Middle name:......................... Last name:........................................ Date of birth (yyyy-mm-dd):....................... Gender:........................................... Marital status:................................... Total Amount Needed............................... Loan Duration.................................... Address:.......................................... City:............................................. State/province:................................... Zip/postal code:.................................. Country:.......................................... Phone:............................................ Fax:.............................................. Mobile/cellular:.................................. Monthly Income.................................... Occupation:....................................... Best Regard, Mr Fernadez Antonio.

  5. i will love to share my testimony to you all the people in world i got married to my husband about 2 year ago we start having problems at home like we stop sleeping on the same bed,fighting about little things he always comes home late at night,drinking too much and sleeping with other women out side i have never love any man in my life except him. he is the father of my child and i don't want to loose him because we have worked so hard together to become what we are and have today .few month ago he now decided to live me and the kid,being a single mother can be hard sometimes and so i have nobody to turn to and i was heart broken.i called my mom and explain every thing to her,my mother told me about DR.okoro how he helped her solve the problem between her and my dad i was surprise about it because they have been without each other for three and a half years and it was like a miracle how they came back to each other. i was directed to DR. okoro on his email:okorospell@gmail.com and explain everything to him,so he promise me not to worry that he will cast a spell and make things come back to how we where so much in love again and that it was another female spirit that was controlling my husband he told me that my problem will be solved within two days if i believe i said OK So he cast a spell for me and after two days my love came back asking me to forgive him i Am so happy now. so that why i decided to share my experience with every body that have such problem contact Dr okoro the great spell caster on his email addresses spellcasterforlove@outlook.com