The Coming Tsunami of Park Infrastructure Needs

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Several years ago I heard Chuck Marohn speak about Strong Towns, and since then, I have studied the Strong Town principles and observed how we develop our communities. Having worked in local government, I have an inside perspective of how communities grow and what the funding priorities are. Over my 40-year career in parks and recreation, I worked for two mid-sized counties: Knox County, Tennessee, and St. Johns County, Florida. Both had two things in common: high growth and limited funding. 

It’s no secret that parks, while very popular with citizens, end up on the short end of funding equation when competing with schools, roads, law enforcement, and fire departments. Our development patterns have a trickle-down effect on all government services. With new growth comes the demand for new services and facilities from schools to libraries to parks. In parks there is a constant competition to fund the new facilities while deferring maintenance and capital replacement for existing facilities. Everyone likes to see new facilities, and even the most fiscally conservative leader enjoys an occasional ribbon cutting—by contrast, there’s not much that’s exciting about repaving parking lots and replacing HVAC systems.

As this pattern continues, the #DoTheMath Strong Towns concept applies. In one year of looking deeper into the Maintenance, Repair, and Replacement list for St. Johns County, we went from $1.7 million to $6.9 million in projects. This did not cover large replacements of park infrastructure that needed to be included in a capital plan. As many of our parks start to age into their 40s and 50s, the demand will continue to grow. Lighting, drainage structures, and parking lots will need to be rebuilt. 

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