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DN Editorial: How Park wrecks became Parks & Rec

ON SEPT. 5, 2005, the Daily News ran a front-page headline that was startling, even for us. It said, "Why the Fairmount Park Commission Must Die."

ON SEPT. 5, 2005, the

Daily News

ran a front-page headline that was startling, even for us. It said, "Why the Fairmount Park Commission Must Die."

The editorial series that ran with it added a mitigating "in its present form," but we had officially abandoned trying to "fix" the then-148-year-old relic, convinced it was incapable of providing the leadership and vision - not to mention a plan - that the city's parks so desperately needed.

Our verdict came four years after our series "Acres of Neglect" had shone a long-dimmed spotlight on the disgraceful state of the parks that were administered by the commission. During that time, the commission had proven time and time again that simply increasing its budget - which it claimed was the only real problem with the parks - would make enough of a difference.

In fact, increasing its budget sometimes became the problem, as was the case with a 1997 grant of $26.6 million from the William Penn Foundation. The money was originally intended for building environmental centers in four parks, but the Fairmount Park Commission found itself in the embarrassing position of ending the grant period without having spent the grant as it had been intended, and ultimately had to forgo about a third of the money.

That was then - a system overseen by judicially appointed, politically connected commissioners, who, for all they cared about the parks, had little experience or expertise actually running them.

And now? The demise of the Fairmount Park Commission and the merger of the Fairmount Park system and the city's Recreation Department embodies a phrase we don't use very often: a government success story.

The success can be seen on the ground - both literally and figuratively: the state of the parks has improved considerably from the neglected acreage it once was (as documented in Tuesday's Daily News). But there's also new success in the department's operations: two entities have been combined into a single department and produced greater efficiencies, more economical operations and a renewed professionalism. As you can see on the chart on Page 21, Parks & Rec are doing more - much more - with less.

There are more rest rooms, and fewer burnt-out and abandoned cars. Litter and dumping are under control. And since 2001, over 21 new attractions have been added, from the big and spectacular WaterWorks restaurant and gardens and the expansion of Please Touch museum into Memorial Hall, to small gems like Café Crete and Centennial Café at Ohio House.

As Fairmount Park Executive Director Mark

Focht described it, the consolidation of the two departments has been "a quiet merger" - that is, structurally complicated, but a joining of forces that is working without drama or disasters.

Getting to a merged parks and rec department was anything but quiet, despite the fact that Philadelphia was among the few cities in the country that separated the two. The original Daily News series brought new attention to the parks, highlighting deficiencies that people had stopped seeing or were unable to see.

Despite the failings, the idea of change created heated battle lines between the old guard and those who saw what might be possible. In this city, those battles are usually enough to neutralize change, and there were moments during the park-reform movement that threatened to reimpose the status quo. But a combination of factors made the difference.

First, two City Council members championed the cause: Blondell Reynolds Brown called hearings and pushed for a strategic plan for the parks. Darrell Clarke joined her soon after, and the two became the go-to park champions. Often against great opposition, the two pushed for the recommendations of the strategic plan, including the consolidation.

Another key player was Mayor-elect Nutter, who saw the parks, not just as the right issue, but as a natural complement to his Greenworks plan.

At a moment when the reform effort was sputtering, Nutter came out clearly in favor of the consolidation, and then helped design the new parks & rec commission to have much broader authority than was originally on paper. He also recruited Mike DiBerardinis, former Recreation Department head and head of the state's Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, to lead the new department; DiBerardinis' leadership abilities are widely credited with the merger's success.

What shouldn't be underestimated? For the first time in recent history, the city's mayor declared the parks important - important enough to fund, and important enough to get it right.

The final say was up to voters, who were asked to vote on a ballot measure put forth by Reynolds-Brown and Clarke for the charter change necessary to merge Fairmount Park and the city's Department of Recreation.

It took more hearings, whispered wild conspiracy theories and wrangling before that change was approved by Philadelphia voters.

Now, 18 months into the merger, the department works. It's become the primary narrator of the kind of story we need more of in Philadelphia: a legacy system that no longer works but is beloved by many, being transformed into a system that works, because of, not in spite of, governmental action.

Coming tomorrow:

A look at the success story of Cobbs Creek Park, and a preview of the vision for the future of parks & recreation. *