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GREEN PORTAGE: Portage neighbors recognize value of strong park systems

Portage Park District Foundation Published: March 5, 2014 4:00 AM

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.

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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.

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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

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redleg6 Mar 5, 2014 3:24 PM

If this has been going on for 23 years or so, how is it Kasichs tax? What happened with Strickland? I know, it's Bushes fault.

Would somebody please list the Parks that need $ to survive.

little_r_republican Mar 5, 2014 12:23 PM

I agree with redleg...why only the home owners being taxed? Since the parks are for everyone...everyone should pay.

stanback Mar 5, 2014 11:44 AM

This is a "bureaucracy" that has been in existence for the past 23 years so, no, it is not new. If one truly doesn't know that there are parks in Portage County, then one needs to get out of the house. They maintain 1300 acres and 14 miles of trails with one full time employee and one part time maintenance person. Pretty lean operation. Portage County is not asking homeowners to finance the parks, Governor John Kasich is. Make no mistake about it. This is a John Kasich imposed tax. The ONLY reason this is on the ballot is because John Kasich took these funds, along with funding to the Ohio educational system, and dumped them in the Ohio "rainy day fund" or used the funds to make up for the sales tax cut he imposed. So this is not a new tax, it is the money you have saved with the sales tax cut. I've been to a park or two in the past, but do not really go anymore but that does not prevent me from seeing the need for them. Governor Kasich promises to reduce the sales tax even farther if re-elected. Maybe, this time he will take funding away from something you do use and then what?

redleg6 Mar 5, 2014 9:14 AM

What parks are in the Portage County district?

Sounds like a new bureaucracy in the making.

Why should just county home/property owners have to finance the parks? Make those that use the parks buy a park pass for $17.50 per year, and leave the rest of us alone!

No new taxes on property owners.