Pulitzer Prize winner Wallace Stegner said, "National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst." Following the example set by the United States Congress, the Ohio General Assembly permitted metropolitan park districts to be established in 1917.
Summit and Stark counties have developed their park districts over decades and have reaped many benefits from them. What can Portage County learn from these two park districts with almost 140 years of combined of experience? Plenty!
Summit Metro Parks
Established as the Akron Metropolitan Park District in 1921, Summit passed its first park levy in 1929. his past November, Summit County citizens passed the parks renewal levy with an unprecedented 75 percent of the voters' support. County residents spend approximately $44 per year per household (based upon a $100,000 property) to support their park district.
Summit County now manages 11,500 acres, including 14 parks, several conservation areas and more than 125 miles of trails, including a portion of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail. Annual attendance averages 5.2 million visitors.
A 2013 study conducted by the University of Akron and Lux Research, LLC showed significant economic gains related to the parks. For example, homes within 500 feet of a park had an increased value by more than 5 percent, creating an annual impact of $42 million for the county. The parks were responsible for up to $17 million in health benefits for Summit County residents. The study also provided evidence that the parks contributed up to $3 million annually in tourism.
Stark County Parks
In comparison to the Summit Metro Parks, Stark Parks is a "young" district. Established in 1967, the Stark Park District began with 400 acres and a hike and bike trail system that consisted of one mile. After 10 unsuccessful attempts, Stark County voters began supporting their parks in 1988. Now, Stark County Park District is supported by a 1-mill levy and costs the owner of a $100,000 home about $31 annually.
Stark Parks manages 7,200 acres and maintains 80 miles of trails. Through public support, grants and foundations, Stark County has been able to connect its communities throughout the county with an extensive trail system attracting over 1 million visitors every year.
Businesses have located on or near the hike and bike trails and have a strong customer base. Programs and services continue to grow. For example, Stark Parks began a hiking program in 2011 with 98 members who, in total, hiked 6,000 miles. This year, the program grew to 250 members who hiked 38,000 miles. Similarly to Summit County, Stark County sees economic and health benefits directly related to having a strong and supported park district.
Portage County Parks
Our Portage Park District was formed in 1991. Without public support, it relies on the revenue sources detailed below. The figures below reflect the 2014 operating budget which is projected to be $99,500.
n Donations: $40,000
n Local Government Funds from the State of Ohio: $26,000
n Portage County General Fund: $18,000
n Rentals and royalties: $10,500
Funding from state and local governments has decreased by 50 percent over the last two years, forcing the Park District to rely on donations for basic operating expenses. Our Park District has one full-time employee, Executive Director Christine Craycroft, and one part-time maintenance staff member. We own and manage 1,300 acres and 14 miles of trails.
While Portage doesn't have the population that Summit or Stark counties have, there are some key lessons. The first is that natural resources are a great value and must be protected for economic, health and wellness reasons. A modest investment in a park system provides a good return on every dollar and provides the capital necessary to seek additional dollars through grants and foundations.
After 23 years it's time for us to publicly support our parks. A 1/2 mill levy will generate the critical capital necessary to maintain what we have and begin a modest, but impactful, growth strategy. We have an urgent need because our budget is not sustainable. The cost to a $100,000 property owner would be $17.50 per year. This small investment will be returned to the citizens through enhanced programming, more services, improved health, and a stronger economy. Let's make developing our Park District the best idea we ever had.
Vote "Yes" on May 6 for our Portage Park District. For Fun. For Health. For Life. Parks Yes!
Sally A. Kandel is a Ravenna Township resident and is volunteering for the Citizens for Portage Parks. She recently joined the Park District Foundation Board. Green Portage is a monthly feature of the Record-Courier in cooperation with the Portage Park District Foundation