More States Go Corporate for Park Upkeep

In 2008 and a few weeks ago in this blog we explored the idea and the progress in Allegheny County’s plan to look for private sector help for park improvements. Facing tight revenue sources and maintenance needs that have been deferred for some time, the County thought that there might be an opportunity to solicit interest from the private sector but the Executive pledged in 2008 that "we are never going to sell [County] parks".

A recent article in USA Today describes how other states have jumped on this line of thinking and have secured donations and services in return for advertising and sponsorship opportunities. Parks in California, playgrounds in New York, and now Georgia (where officials have stated, in a reassuring way, that "we will not rename any parks") are looking to the corporate pool.

And that pool is not bottomless, so whether the County goes the route of other states (the parks website still lists assets that were considered for rehab at the time our 2008 piece was written) it likely needs to get moving. Add the fact that the parks are seeking increased Regional Asset District funding for next year is not an indicator that the private sector approach is proceeding in the intended direction.

Is Park Privatization Dead?

"The park system is rich in recreational, natural, and historic resources and has the potential to be one of the finest county park systems in the country. It also has tremendous potential to generate revenue from its assets to help with renovation of facilities and development of recreational programs".

That’s what was written by a consulting firm nearly three years ago as the County sought ways to better run its park system, a system that contains about 12k acres. We wrote a Brief in 2008 about the County’s efforts to turn to the private sector to improve operations and maintenance. Some of the parks’ capital improvements had been deferred for close to two decades.

So the news today that the County is going to seek an additional $1.25 million in Regional Asset District funding to "…deal with our deferred maintenance" as the County Parks Director put it, raises some confusion. Does that mean that there is no private sector interest in shoring up park assets or taking over operations on certain amenities? Or were there offers on the table that were not enticing enough for the County to embrace?

RAD generates about $17 million for the parks now, and with other beneficiaries such as the libraries clamoring for more in the coming year, the time would be opportune for the parks to move more of its funding to the private sector.

Exploring Privatization or Just Talk?

It was heartening to learn Pittsburgh officials are opening up to the idea of looking at outsourcing and other private sector involvement to solve the City’s perennial fiscal problems. The Allegheny Institute has been arguing for such an approach for 15 years only to have our research and recommendations rebuffed by elected officials. Now, according to recent news accounts, the finance director has been telling New York financial players that Pittsburgh is actively exploring public-private partnerships as a way of generating revenue and/or lowering costs.

The time has come-the Mayor now says-to be open to a concept that is widely used already by other state and city governments but one that has been stymied in Pittsburgh. Political and union led opposition toward anything hinting of privatization has been fierce. Therefore, it must be asked; Is this a real epiphany on the part of the Mayor and his staff, or is it just an effort to convince financial markets that Pittsburgh is moving toward a sensible approach to solving deep and longstanding fiscal problems?

Certainly, it is to be hoped that the more open stance is real and sincere. If it is, the Mayor deserves congratulations. If previous mayors and councils had adopted a friendlier position on privatization, outsourcing and public-private partnerships 15 years ago instead of wasting enormous amounts of money pursuing a publicly funded, wrongheaded growth strategy, Pittsburgh would undoubtedly been in better shape than it finds itself today. Unfortunately, delaying the shift toward market based, private sector involvement for so long has almost certainly lowered the potential gains to be had from the new approach.

Still, it is never too late to begin using the private sector to improve the City’s financial situation-the sooner and more extensively the better. Let’s hope for the sake of City’s long term well being the Mayor is serious and the inevitable union and Council opposition can be overcome.