Chicago parks play for keeps with partnerships.
Chicago’s park system has been referred to in the past as “dysfunctional,” “a patronage system for jobs, not for citizens” and “out of control.” It used to take 84 steps and a year to fire a problem employee, and vacancies went unfilled for an average of 38 weeks. Annual property tax increases sustained a growing budget.
Park employees aggressively discouraged use of the park facilities, lest they be inconvenienced by children. The Chicago Tribune wrote of one park supervisor who would not let children play in the auditorium because their sneakers scuffed the floor. In another case, a woman called her local park to inquire if a certain program was still being offered, only to be told the information was “confidential.” Another would-be park user was told information about classes and activities could not be given out over the telephone.
In a November, 1990, editorial entitled “Make Chicago’s Parks Work Again,” the Tribune noted the park district was running a “string of ghost towns” where “staffers are well-preserved because many parks and fieldhouses and gyms are rarely used, and the staffers are rarely subjected to the physical strain of work.”
Not anymore. Today, that same park system — 560 parks covering some 7,400 acres — receives accolades instead of epithets and praise instead of bad press. The district now gathers support from the private sector, as confirmed by the more than $3 million in cash and in-kind donations received this past year, as well as a $1 million commitment from the Chicago White Sox to help with a $10 million, multi-year plan to replace and maintain all 814 softball and baseball diamonds in city parks. To date, more than 160 fields have been completed and another 141 will be finished this year.
Neighborhood parks currently are managed by six region managers who work in the field, not at a downtown office. The managers are supported by a team of professional specialists in the administration of recreation, finance, marketing, human resources, facilities and landscaping. They are given the staff, resources, responsibility and authority to run parks in their region, based on the needs and preferences of their customers — the people who use the parks.
Additionally, the park district created the first-ever system to track capital projects and tie them to funding sources, avoiding the possibility of deficit spending occurring again. And it implemented a modern management system that makes individuals responsible for projects “from cradle to grave,” recruiting experienced construction managers to oversee all capital projects.
In addition to operating 260 field pools, six golf courses and more than 2,000 game courts, playing fields and playgrounds, the district oversees 31 miles of publicly accessible shoreline on Lake Michigan, which boasts 23 beaches and nine harbors.
It also acts as landlord for the Lincoln Park Zoo, Soldier Field and an outdoor music shell where free summer concerts are presented.
A BLOATED BUREAUCRACY
The Chicago Park District was created in 1934 through the consolidation of 22 separate park districts, a unification designed to remedy existing problems such as delayed tax collections, shrinking property assessments and decreasing park use. It corrected the problems and was a successful, functional operation for about 30 years.
Then, civic and advocacy organizations and newspaper editorial boards began attacking what was seen as a wasteful, bloated park bureaucracy. The hammered away at empty fieldhouses, the ineffective and sometimes invisible park programs and the lack of interest and cooperation exhibited by many employees.
While Forrest Claypool, who took over as general superintendent two years ago, was well aware of some of the problems he would face, he did not expect to find financial calamity. An independent study discovered the park district had committed more than $60 million in capital projects, yet had only $15 million in the bank. And, because of an earlier borrowing binge, the district had already bumped up against its legal debt ceiling.
“A private business following these practices would have been insolvent years ago,” Claypool says. “But this is government, and the Chicago Park District had simply become fatter — making up with annual property tax increases what it could not generate through greater efficiency or customer fees.”
With a monopoly on public recreation, the park district had been isolated from market forces. It offered poor and often unwanted recreational products. Local parks virtually kept their programs secret, relying on word-of-mouth to advertise classes and services. And, when a random survey of park programming was taken, it showed that, on average, scheduled programs took place only 56 percent of the time. More than four times out of 10, the park customer showed up to an empty room.
Lack of preventive maintenance caused problems, too. By waiting until roofs actually sprung leaks before taking action, the district had to repair ruined gymnasium floors as well.
A LABYRINTH OF OBSTACLES
The programs, classes and recreational activities that were supposed to have the full cooperation of the central office suffered from a labyrinth of bureaucratic obstacles. In some cases, dedicated employees took matters into their own hands.
A music teacher had received endless promises from the central administration that a music studio would be built at her park, a request that got lost in the bureaucracy. Tired of waiting, she and her supervisor used their own money, materials and labor to assemble the electronic equipment and soundproof the building.
Today, the classes in music composition at that park attract large numbers of children from the area. Indeed, one young woman, who developed her skills at that studio, has won a recording contract.
Another instructor wanted to bring popular step-aerobics classes to her park. She repeatedly asked the administration for the steps. A year passed. She then offered to pay park carpenters out of her own pocket to build the steps. Another six months went by.
She eventually got the steps for her students, but only through her own ingenuity, spunk and a car dealer’s sales promotion. The terms were simple: test drive a car and get an aerobic step. She rounded up 15 family members to take 15 test drives and got her 15 steps.
Nearly every capital project moved quickly from the design stage to the certified-disaster stage. For example, the park district acquired a former YMCA building to create a state-of-the-art recreational facility. When the new administration finally imposed a moratorium on all construction, the project was a year behind schedule and $1 million over budget.
Previously, the design engineering division drew up blueprints, turned them over to another division and waited while that division handed them off to still another one. The project blueprints then were handed off to untrained and inexperienced tradesmen who would proceed without talking to anyone from the design or engineering departments.
No single person could be held responsible for the debacle since so many hands touched the projects, and no one person was put in charge from start to finish.
“This horror story was the basis of one of the park district’s first ventures into privatization and professionalization of staff,” Claypool says. “It was obvious that it was time for the park district to get out of the construction business and focus on our core mission: the creation of beautiful, well-maintained parks and high-quality recreation programs.”
CREATING PARKS FOR THE PEOPLE
The first thing the new park district administration had to do was incorporate sound business principles to cover runaway spending without raising taxes. After all, for two decades the district had seen virtually automatic annual property tax increases to cover an ever-escalating percentage of total park spending.
Claypool began by canceling hundreds of projects and reducing the patronage-bloated work force by 25 percent. Programs that were not in demand were weeded out, and the management of Lincoln Park Zoo, Soldier Field, parking garages and lots, information systems, medical and risk management services and internal janitorial operations were privatized.
“We found that privatizing certain areas is the economical and logical course to follow,” Claypool says. “If changing a system or procedure is profitable for the park district, it’s profitable for the citizens of Chicago, whom we serve.”
In 1993, Kemper Golf Management, Chicago, took over the operation of the district’s six golf courses and two driving ranges. The contract guarantees the park district about $250,000 a year up front for capital improvements, and the remaining revenues are divided equally. In 1992, the district suffered a $530,000 operating deficit; in 1994, that was turned into a $550,000 profit.
Under the agreement, golf course buildings were rehabilitated, tees resodded and extensive landscaping performed at all the courses. The company installed a computerized ticketing system, which increased the number of phone-in reservations, and increased outreach programs for junior golfers ages eight to 17 and adaptive golf programs for the disabled.
Most importantly, privatization has helped the park district hold the line on the tax levy. For the second year in a row, its budget was passed without raising property taxes.
Under the private management of Standard Parking, Chicago, the three underground garages in the downtown area, located in the vast expanse of park district-operated Grant Park, realized increased profits from August through December 1993 of more than half a million dollars compared to the same period the previous year.
In addition, the net income figures for the district did not subtract the cost of general repair and maintenance, estimated to be at least $800,000, which the contractor’s figures did include.
The facilities were cleaned, painted and brightened. In one garage, 24,000 lights that had never been cleaned were discovered. The park district also experimented with privatizing the parking lots surrounding Soldier Field by bringing in the contractor for one Chicago Bears football game in 1994. In one day, revenues increased by nearly $25,000 over park district-managed parking revenues. This experiment was the ultimate justification for turning over the last of the district’s parking operations to private management.
With fewer distractions, the park district started paying more attention to management of Soldier Field, which resulted in a 1994 net revenue gain, compared to a net loss of $2.6 million in 1993, the first time the deficit had been eliminated in the 50-plus-year history of Soldier Field.
It became evident that Soldier Field could be used more often, and, with private management and better marketing, generate more revenue. The goal was to make the facility profitable and no longer subsidized by the taxpayers. On Aug. 1, 1994, Soldier Field Joint Venture took over.
The private operators brought with them greater management expertise and more marketing capability. They added more portable concessions stands and placed them more strategically. As a result, every person entering the facility spent, on the average, $.50 more on concessions — bringing in additional net revenues of $115,000 for the Bears’ season.
Branded concessions received exclusive signage free of charge under district management, and private management tapped this revenue source as well. And when the network television people met the new management team, they discovered they would have to begin paying for their own electricity.
When the park district operated Soldier Field, 40 tradespeople, including electricians, plumbers, painters and others, were retained on the day of a game. The private contractor operates the field with 10 tradespeople, and the Bears’ management reports better service and responsiveness since privatization.
“We had to flip the entire organization on its head, directing resources, services and employees toward the parks and communities they serve and away from a centralized bureaucracy,” Claypool says. The old bureaucracy had 13 divisions reporting to the general superintendent, but only one focused on parks and recreation. There are now only seven divisions, and six of them deal solely with local park activities. The seventh serves as a central support unit.
The park district also invested time and money into its in-house management information services department, which, despite a yearly budget of nearly $1 million, was ineffective and unresponsive. The department could not integrate systems and services or communicate with one another, and the system did not have the necessary reporting capability.
The information technology services throughout the park district are now computerized, replacing the paper-intensive systems with faster, less expensive and more accurate data. Electronic mail is creating a paperless environment, and the new system uses the latest technology and industry-standard programs to create user-friendly and accurate documents.
The decentralization and downsizing, combined with the creation of regional offices, reduced the bureaucratic colossus at the park district into a new streamlined organization, which accelerates the hiring, promotion and disciplinary process. Posting for jobs now goes up in neighborhood parks and regional offices, not just in the central administration building, which was previously the sole source of job information.
SENDING A LOUD, CLEAR MESSAGE
With its newly earned respect, the district has been able to enter collaborative agreements with institutions and corporations that provide recreational and cultural activities and support, never before obtainable, to a broad spectrum of children and young adults.
One program, named “Park Partners,” involves more than 100 of Chicago’s finest cultural and sports institutions ranging from the Goodman Theater to the Chicago Bulls. “Dancin’ in the Parks” brought together the Auditorium Theater Council, the Dance Center of Columbia College and the park district to offer dance classes taught by Chicago’s premier professional instructors.
For the past two years, the district has teamed up with mortgage loan giant Freddie Mac, Chicago, to offer a program of free beach trips to more than 5,500 children and their parents who live in public housing. The families play games, have picnics and, after receiving swimming and water safety lessons from park district lifeguards, spend a day swimming in Lake Michigan.
Focusing on making the parks more user-friendly, the district extended the outdoor swimming pool season by three weeks this past summer to allow for greater public use, and — weather permitting — will repeat that extension again this year. Twenty-two day camps also will extend their hours to meet the needs of working parents who previously were unable to enroll their children in summer programs.
“Park Kids,” another program that addresses the concerns and needs of working parents, offers a safe, affordable alternative to leaving school-aged children home alone.
In essence, the park district has restructured its after-school program to provide supervised care and, at the same time, program extracurricular activities and sporting competitions that are fun and enriching for children. The program operates Monday through Friday, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. during the school year and even provides free bus service from local schools to nearby parks.
And, $3 million has been set aside to hire 100 full-time Chicago police officers who will exclusively patrol the parks as well as oversee the planting of 5,000 trees. An additional 6,000 trees will be planted this year.
In past years, the general superin-tendent had a skybox at Soldier Field for sporting events, concerts and special presentations. Claypool discontinued the practice and created the Skybox Club, donating the seats to needy youngsters in the Chicago area.
“I wanted to send a loud, clear message to the general public that the park district was once again about kids,” Claypool says.
The district now is entering the next phase of its ongoing reform. Up to now, the reforms were designed to lay a foundation for their mission of providing quality programming in well-used, well-kept parks.
Now the goal is to provide intensive training for park personnel, empowering them to work with people in the neighborhoods to deliver the best and most responisve programs, holding them accountable for the results and rewarding those who respond with energy and creativity.
The importance and value of this next phase, called “Neighborhoods First: A Program Quality Initiative,” is evidenced by support from the Mac-Arthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust — each contributed $200,000.
Under the program, local park personnel will be trained and encouraged to work closely with residents and neighborhood groups to help shape park programs. Staff will be held more accountable for the quality of those programs and the condition of the parks.
CREATING REAL PARTNERSHIPS
The program requires every park to meet performance standards that include attractiveness, cleanliness of facilities, quality programming and responsiveness to park users. To track the results of the program, the district will collect specific data to measure a park’s progress on established quality standards.
The information will include public attendance, program consistency, cleanliness of facilities, community outreach and financial management. These reports will allow park-by-park comparisons and will point to areas where a park needs additional assistance.
“A good park can have a great impact on the life of a neighborhood when its landscaping is inviting and — most importantly — when its programs are meaningful for the children, families and seniors who live there,” says Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.
Park staff will be backed up with in-the-field consulting help from academic and not-for-profit trainers, who will advise them on techniques for building community partnerships. Staff will go through intensive training in programming, community outreach and management designed to improve the quality of park operations.
Plans include a permanent in-house training program offering uniform training on standards and skills to new employees, as well as “refresher” courses for veteran employees. A programming and operations manual will be developed and produced for park manager’s use.
According to Claypool: “Our goal is to draw on lessons we’ve learned from parks that work and create a real partnership with each and every park community to see to it that all our parks better serve their neighborhoods.”