Columbia’s city parks need cash and care, study advises

sfretwell@thestate.comMay 21, 2013 

— Columbia’s park system is outdated, underfunded and out of touch with community needs – and without serious attention, it will continue to crumble, according to a consulting study given Tuesday to City Council.

The study, written by the Genesis Consulting Group, cites an array of problems in a park system that includes 16 city pools, 55 tennis courts, 58 parks and some 600 acres of green space.

“It is our professional opinion that many of the facilities have passed their useful life and that needs are now beyond maintenance,” the Genesis study says.

Even Finlay Park, Columbia’s highest-profile community open space for two decades, is showing signs of age, parks director Jeff Caton said. The pond and fountain have structural problems that need attention, Caton said after the meeting.

Genesis Consulting did not say how much it would cost to upgrade Columbia’s park system. Those figures will be developed in the next year and presented to City Council for action, Caton said. Columbia’s park system now operates on a $9.4 million budget.

But consultants said the city may want to redirect staff members and rely more heavily on user fees so Columbia will have adequate funds to maintain what it has. The city also could choose to shut down some properties that are not very busy, said consultant David Brandes in presenting five pages of recommendations to upgrade the system.

“If you have got an underused amenity you’re maintaining, the best thing you can do is close it,” he said. “When you get down to the dollars and cents, you’ve got to cut something.”

One problem with the park system centers on the amount of money being spent on staff members versus the amount spent on maintenance, the Genesis study says.

About 80 percent of the city’s recreation budget goes toward staff salaries, and some of the larger parks appear to have too many staffers working there, the study said. It also said some staff members are less educated and experienced than their counterparts in comparable cities.

The study suggested trimming some staff and redirecting others. Caton said he doesn’t anticipate laying off anyone, but hopes to add more money for maintenance and operations.

As it stands now, for example, Columbia doesn’t always have enough money to put soft material beneath children’s swings to protect them if they fall, City Council was told. The consulting report said the city has the second-lowest maintenance budget and the second-lowest capital improvement budget of comparable cities surveyed. Columbia also doesn’t always operate parks during the hours most people want to visit, the study said.

In addition to outlining existing problems, the study says Columbia needs to look at adding a “landmark recreational destination,” a facility that could bring visitors to town. One of those under consideration is a water park, but council has not made any decision on that. Upgrades to Finlay Park or Riverfront Park also could accomplish that goal, the report said.

Councilwoman Leona Plaugh said the report raised sobering questions.

“Our park system is a tremendous asset to this community, and it is too easy, I think for all of us, to take it for granted,” she said, noting that “There are some hard decisions ahead for us.”

Tuesday’s presentation was City Council’s first look at the study, which began at about the same time Caton became parks director last year. The idea is to develop a five-year parks and leisure plan.

Genesis put together the report after comparing Columbia to about a dozen similar cities from South Carolina to California. Those cities included Charleston; Sumter; Waco, Texas; Fullerton, Calif.; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

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