Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Sacramento Union Guest Editorial

The Sacramento Union ran our guest editorial in their current issue (pages 18-19)

Guest Editorial
The American River Parkway:
The Case for Management by a Nonprofit Organization

David H. Lukenbill
Senior Policy Director
American River Parkway Preservation Society

The American River Parkway is one of the premier recreational and natural resources in the capital region; over 4,000 acres of walking, equestrian, and bike trails, fishing and rafting spots, picnic areas, parks, golf courses, islands and a beautiful river drifting through one of the major urban/suburban and richly historic areas of the nation.

It is also being sadly mismanaged by Sacramento County to the point that even basic maintenance is falling drastically behind every year, and the overall annual budget shortfall—when factoring all that should be being accomplished—has been declared by one Parkway organizations to be $8,595,427.

Our first guiding principle is: Preserving the Parkway is not an option, it’s a necessity and from this perspective the way to preserve, protect, and strengthen the Parkway as a vitally necessary ingredient to our quality of life, is through two initiatives.

The first is to provide daily management for the Parkway through a nonprofit organization, and the second is to work for the Parkway to become part of a National Heritage Area (a program of the National Park Service) encompassing the historic Gold Rush landscape in the American River Watershed.

With an independent nonprofit organization providing management, the ability to accomplish long range goals for the Parkway, such as the federal designation or endowment fund development, will be greatly increased.

Regarding the funding shortage, some feel a Benefit Assessment District is the best way to raise funds for the Parkway, but we don’t agree with that approach for three reasons:

1) Benefit Assessment Districts tax the property of those who benefit from the entity but how that would be determined fairly in this case is uncertain, as many people who live close to the Parkway don’t use it while many living far away do.

2) It delivers the funds to the same local government entity—Sacramento County—that has already failed in managing the Parkway for several years—with a threatened closure in 2004— with no clear promise or perceived capability that anything has changed.

3) There is a better way.

Part of a better way is a Joint Powers Authority (JPA).

A JPA makes sense, is fair to the newer cities such as Rancho Cordova and Arden Arcade—if it incorporates—could create a stable base funding stream and provide balanced governance oversight of a contract with the managing nonprofit.

Bringing in the cities as partners in a JPA addresses the current political and economic climate facing the County—the difficulty of raising taxes and the continuing incorporation of new cities—causing the County’s financial situation to continue to deteriorate leaving even less future funding for the Parkway.

The best example of this management strategy locally is the Sacramento Zoo, established in 1927 and managed—since 1997—by the non-profit Sacramento Zoological Society under contract with the city.

The Zoo property, buildings and animal collection remain assets of the city of Sacramento.

In addition to providing the necessary maintenance for the Zoo, the Society has continually moved to strengthen the operation, adding an on-site veterinary hospital and is involved in long- range plans to begin acquiring 100 acres of land along the American River to house a new zoo which would rival national landmark zoos like the San Diego Zoo housed in Balboa Park.

This type of visionary thinking comes from an organization dedicating itself solely to the Zoo and the service it provides to the public, and the same dynamic could happen with a nonprofit organization managing the Parkway.

The national model for what a nonprofit can do for a park is the Central Park Conservancy, which took over management of Central Park in New York several years ago when the city was struggling financially. The Conservancy has restored Central Park’s luster as one of the world’s great parks, building an endowment well in excess of $100 million in the process.

The elements exist in the American River Parkway—central to the greatest migration of people in the western hemisphere during the Gold Rush and with its sister rivers framing the capital of one of the world’s great economies and governing centers—to create a truly world-class park.

It will take leadership realizing the great value of the natural resources in our region and enlisting the public and other government leaders in the effort to grow and fund this great natural heart of our community.

In conclusion, our suggestion would be to form a JPA with the County, Sacramento, Rancho Cordova, and Folsom, establishing a base financial commitment for a specific period of time; and contract with a nonprofit organization to seek National Heritage Area status and provide daily management and dedicated philanthropic fund development for the Parkway.

Finally, the capability of a nonprofit organization to advocate for one of the most important public policies affecting the Parkway, the construction of the Auburn Dam—after fully researching and validating its importance—to protect the integrity of the Parkway as well as providing the 500 year level of flood protection to the urban area surrounding it, would be considerable.