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Brainstorming the Parks-Rec merger

THE CITY IS about to enter unfamiliar territory in the management of our parks and open spaces. We'll come out just fine, as long as we first get our bearings, pick the best leaders and head in the right direction.

THE CITY IS about to enter unfamiliar territory in the management of our parks and open spaces. We'll come out just fine, as long as we first get our bearings, pick the best leaders and head in the right direction.

With the voters' approval last month of a change in the City Charter, the 141-year-old Fairmount Park Commission will be dissolved and the parks and Department of Recreation will be merged starting next summer. A new advisory commission, with members recommended by City Council and chosen by the mayor, will establish new policies for land use, closely guided by community input. The disposal of any parkland still must be approved by City Council.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society has been a longtime partner and friend of both Fairmount Park and the Rec Department, working together to revive neighborhood parks, gardens and facilities. And we were a participant in the task forces that explored ways to reform the parks management system and its funding strategy. We intend to remain a dedicated, active partner of the merged department long into the future.

The greatest benefit of this new form of park governance is that the parks are now the responsibility of the mayor. The city needed to identify who is accountable for the protection and upkeep of our green spaces, and the responsibility is now clear.

Another plus will be the creation of specific policies for land protection, sale, lease and acquisition, and a transparent process in the decision-making.

The ultimate success of the department will depend on whether it's equipped with the leadership, resources and partnerships needed to realize the full potential of our green space.

The members of the commission must be committed and knowledgeable about the parks, and they will need courage, talent and vision in supporting and marketing our parkland as a vital asset for the city. We need new ideas to meet the demands of this challenging next chapter.

The commission would do well to look to the successful park systems in Chicago, New York and Vancouver, Canada, as it seeks a model for Philadelphia. Commission members must also be familiar with the strengths of this city and how it operates. So we need an unusual combination of skills.

That's why we should look for a director of the Parks and Recreation Commission who has an entrepreneurial spirit. The commission leadership must also have the respect of both merged departments and build the relationships needed through other partnerships to leverage new sources of revenue. How the new department raises money externally will be critical to its success, because no one foresees that the city budget will be able to support this effort alone.

Developing a diverse funding strategy will be crucial. Corporate giving is down, as are the investments that affect governments and foundations. So it's time to expand the pool of resources to get the work done in the time of crisis and beyond.

The city is rich in volunteer organizations. But more volunteer days will be needed on the part of business, schools, churches and civic groups.

There also may be an alternative labor pool. Fairmount Park contains trails and buildings constructed during the FDR years. The Depression-era Conservation Corps could be revived today, funded by federal or state dollars, to retrain the unemployed in green-collar jobs, or to bolster the re-entry program for our inmate population.

The existing partners of the park and recreation systems also must be important components in forming the merged departments.

Park friends groups should be sought out for advice on the work they've done for decades. They love the parks and have a proven track record. Citizen engagement will be key to future success of the new department.

THE BUSINESS community can serve as wise counsel on what government and the private sector can bring to the table in terms of investment and access to resources.

Organizational partnerships, like those of the Horticultural Society and the city's cultural institutions, can help support programming and stewardship of the parks.

One last thought: There's a defensive reflex that makes us all step back and contract in times of crisis. So it's especially important now to be open to those who offer new ideas that can help us weather the storm. *

Blaine Bonham Jr. is executive vice president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.