Parks can mean millions for local economy

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The giant chess set and oversized Connect 4 that showed up in Acacia Park this summer are among many efforts underway — by citizens and the city — to energize and revitalize Colorado Springs parks.

It’s not just about games; parks mean business in the Springs.

The 2017 Economic Benefits of Parks and Recreation in Colorado Springs report calls the city’s parks and trails “key economic drivers that contribute millions annually in economic benefits.”

According to the report, created by The Trust for Public Land, the city’s parks:

• Boost the value of nearby residential properties by $502 million;

• Increase property tax revenue by $2.58 million annually;

• Provide stormwater infiltration, valued at $3.06 million per year;

• Draw about $135 million in visitor spending; and

• Generate $6.36 million in local tax revenue.

They also support local jobs, increase spending at local businesses and play a major role in attracting businesses and employees to the city by improving quality of life.

Boosting quality of life was the aim when Mattie Albert, strategy and development manager for the El Paso County Clerk & Recorder, and Josh Green, of Mission Accomplished LLC, initiated Play in the Park on their own time, as an effort to reactivate Acacia Park as a downtown hub — somewhere people can gravitate to recreate, picnic and relax.

“We wanted to pull people in and create things that are fun to use … so that Acacia Park really gains that prominence again as a nexus of intergenerational activity,” said Albert.

In partnership with Colorado Springs Urban Intervention, Downtown Partnership and Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, and with sponsorship from Vectra Bank, Albert and Green opened Play in the Park on June 14.

Phase 1 includes oversized chess, Connect 4 and cornhole games alongside lawn bowling and shuffleboard in the visitors center area of the park.

Planning for Phase 2 will begin after the summer.

Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Director Karen Palus said Play in the Park complements the popular Uncle Wilber Fountain on the south end of the park, and surrounding businesses respond positively to “the vibrancy and excitement of having families out there.”

Especially for downtown parks, “making sure we have appropriate uses going on [means] we start to see less inappropriate activity,” she said.

Big changes are also underway for Monument Valley Park, with the Legacy Plaza trailhead slated for opening this month.

The project transformed an old fleet vehicle storage area on the northern edge of Monument Valley Park into a 100-space parking area and trailhead expected to boost park-based events.

“One of the challenges with Monument Valley Park is it’s a deed-restricted area because [Gen. William] Palmer did not agree with alcohol in parks,” Palus said. “A lot of promoters have been asking to be able to have beer after the runs. … As an event promoter, that’s challenging when you’d like to add [alcohol] as a factor for your runners. ”

Because the trailhead lies outside Monument Valley Park, that restriction won’t apply.

“That’s not why we’re building it, but it is one of the added benefits that promoters are really excited about,” Palus said.

Connection work is also underway on the Legacy Loop itself — the long-awaited 10-mile path that will connect runners, walkers and cyclists to the heart of downtown while avoiding roads.

“That was a dream of our city’s founder, General Palmer, to have a green loop around the downtown area — so we’re investing significant resources of our own city dollars, as well as from [Great Outdoors Colorado] for new trailhead and trail improvements along the Legacy Loop,” Palus said.

Full connections are expected to be complete on the north end of the Loop in about 18 months, Palus said, and design is underway for a railroad underpass portion near Las Vegas Street.

Palus said the Legacy Loop is one of her department’s most important projects for activating downtown and is central to the Downtown Master Plan.

“Our goal is we’d like to have most of this buttoned up within the next three years and have the whole Legacy Loop done, but there’s still some fundraising that has to happen,” she said.

The Legacy Loop Plaza Trail Head alone was double the original price expected for the project, Palus said, and similar price hikes are hitting all parks projects.

“Especially in and around downtown, we’re continuing to see project escalation in terms of pricing. That has become even more challenging in the last eight months or so,” she said.

Faced with funding issues, Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services is trying to stretch every dollar by working with private and public funding partners and leveraging grant opportunities.

“This community is so generous — so many of them help and do good work, whether it’s sweat equity building trails … or fundraising for our parks system or the particular property they know and love,” she said.

In Monument Valley Park, which Palus describes as “heavily, heavily used,” partners have pitched in on numerous projects.

Friends of Monument Valley Park helped raise funds and secure grants to restore the park’s historic walls, and the Pikes Peak Pickleball Association pitched in funding for state-of-the-art pickleball facilities. Several playgrounds have been replaced, and other areas have been renovated.

“We’d love to do more,” Palus said.

Kevin Roth, vice president of research for the National Recreation and Park Association, who led the NRPA’s Economic Impact of Local Parks study, said park investment is vital to economic development.

“The message of our study is that while it’s easy for some people to view parks and recreation as being a luxury … they really are an addition to what people value very highly in their own lives; they actually are providing economic benefit to the community as a whole,” Roth said.

“We’re also looking at how parks are used as an economic development tool. We know when companies are looking at moving their headquarters or considering whether to stay in a town, they look at quality of life.

“Parks are tied to some of the most important things companies look at in terms of the livability of an area.”

Roth said many cities see their residents advocating for greater parks funding and resources in the midst of development.

“What we’ve found in our studies with Americans across the country is you don’t have to be a heavy park user to see the value of it,” he said.

“People may have varying levels of passion for parks, but no one hates parks. People are very attuned to the value of open space. It’s the kind of thing that turns people from just homeowners or home renters into really being a part of the community.” n CSBJ