As cities face increasingly tight budgets they are increasingly turning to public-private partnerships to ensure that public amenities such as parks remain open and in good repair (Daniel Beekman, “Public-Private Partnerships Take Root to Help Downtown Parks,” Seattle Times, Jan. 4, 2015). The precise model differs case-to-case, but the fundamentals remain the same: 1) the park remains a public space, 2) a private entity takes over some – or all – of the running of the park. Municipalities have consistently found this model to be both practical and profitable.
The use of private funds to maintain public spaces was largely pioneered in New York City. Central Park was rescued from its decline into a dangerous, derelict eye-sore by the non-profit, Central Park Conservancy. The Conservancy is responsible for day-to-day maintenance and operations of the Park (Douglas Martin, “City Offers Private Group Contract to Maintain Central Park,” New York Times, Sept. 6, 1997) . The contract, initially signed in 1997, was renewed in 2006 (James Barron, “Sweeter Deal for Managing Central Park,” New York Times, April 30, 2006). The improvement in the Park’s fortunes under the Conservancy was underscored by the $100 million gift from John A. Paulson (a hedge fund manager) to the Conservancy (Lisa W. Foderaro, “A $100 Million Thank-You for a Lifetime’s Central Park Memories,” New York Times, Oct. 23, 2012).
Since the late 1990s, the number of cities entering into public-private partnerships has grown dramatically. From New York to Seattle and San Diego, municipalities are entering into agreements with private entities to help off-set the costs of park maintenance and programming. Swope Park in Kansas City, including Starlight Theatre, is under the management of the non-profit, Friends of the Zoo. This is just one of the many partnerships that the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department has entered into. According to the KC Parks website, “These partnerships allow our department to leverage resources and generate city-wide interest and support for our system facilities, programs, and events” (http://kcparks.org/partners/) Cities are finding that these partnerships are invaluable in helping to solve many of the maintenance problems posed by public parks as well as giving the flexibility to provide a changing array of events in the parks (Daniel Beekman, “Public-Private Partnerships Take Root to Help Downtown Parks,” Seattle Times, Jan. 4, 2015).
Public-private partnerships have become the norm for cities undertaking any form of major project. “It’s rare that there’s any major project done in any city – whether the originating side is on the public side or the private side – that doesn’t involve some kind of public-private partnership,” according to Gene Slaver, Chairman of CSG Advisors (CSG Advisors provides consulting services to cities on a wide array public infrastructure issues. http://csgadvisors.com/). “Some kind of development agreement, some kind of financial agreement, some kind of joint set of role” (Jen Kinney, “Parks Get Help Navigating Public-Private Partnerships,” Next City, February 11, 2016. https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/parks-public-private-partnerships).
The trend nation-wide is for municipalities to share the responsibility for the operation of public parks with private entities. Carefully undertaken, these arrangements are proving to be beneficial to the private entities, cities, and most importantly, to the public who are being gifted with well-maintained parks that are creatively programmed.