Recognizing Parks and Recreation’s Role in Economic Development

The following is an article published in the National Recreation & Park Association's monthly magazine Parks & Recreation (June 5, 2018, by Kevin Roth, Ph.D. ).

"We learned from the Local Government Officials’ Perceptions of Parks and Recreation study, which was published last fall, that elected and appointed local leaders agree their local communities benefit from the amenities provided by their local park and recreation agency. However, these same officials readily admitted that when their city, town or county must cut its spending, the local government service they target for the largest budget cut frequently is their park and recreation agency.

Another of the report’s key findings suggests a major cause for this disconnect: Local government officials see parks and recreation as a part of the solution for many of the issues facing their community, including improving quality of life, preventing youth crime and enhancing residents’ health. They do not, however, perceive these amenities contributing to what they view as the most pressing issue: attracting and retaining businesses. Bridging this perceptions gap is critical in helping to stabilize, and even grow, park and recreation agency funding.

A new study, commissioned by NRPA and conducted by the George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis, identifies how local park officials can better engage with those in the economic development community. The stakes of the report’s findings are critical. Through the development of lasting relationships, economic development leaders could become important park and recreation allies by helping defend budgets, promote new initiatives and create more engaged constituencies.

Some Key Findings
As a part of the Promoting Parks and Recreation’s Role in Economic Development study, Drs. Terry Clower and Mark White talked with more than 70 park and recreation leaders and economic development practitioners across the United States. These conversations focused on how park and recreation leaders currently promote their agencies’ economic contributions, the nature and extent of the relationship between park leaders and economic developers, how both groups see these relationships evolving and details regarding relevant department initiatives.

The researchers also spoke to site-selection consultants to better understand the role that quality of life (and parks and recreation) plays in site-location decisions.
The researchers found that economic development leaders place a high level of value on park and recreation amenities for their efforts. For example, 72 percent of communities use images of urban parks and public spaces, outdoor amenities, and recreational and cultural facilities in their economic development marketing materials. Similarly, 70 percent of these communities make specific reference to quality-of-life considerations and/or present parks-related data and information in their economic development marketing materials. Rarely, however, do these marketing materials specifically call out the local park and recreation agency. Only a third of economic development marketing collateral reviewed specifically credited or cited the local park and recreation agency. Even rarer is for park and recreation agency leaders to have an actual seat at the table for their communities’ economic development efforts.

Promoting Parks and Recreation’s Role in Economic Development defines the role of parks and recreation in economic development and lays out a strategy to further grow this relationship. Among the report’s key findings are the following:

  • Quality-of-life considerations (including high-quality parks and recreation) play a supporting role in site-location decisions.
    • Quality-of-life factors are most important to firms that prioritize talent attraction and retention.
      • Firms looking to locate office operations (e.g., headquarters, regional shared-service centers or professional and business services) and that recruit employees regionally, nationally or even internationally, are more likely to prioritize quality-of-life factors in site-location decisions
  • Park and recreation agencies contribute to the economic development process through:
    • Business attraction: Park and recreation agencies strengthen product development (e.g., building trail infrastructure) and enhance community “curb appeal”
    • Business retention and expansion: Active engagement with companies and workers can influence business expansion decisions and attract new residents to a community
    • Talent attraction: Many business owners first learn about places as visitors or tourists; positive recreational experiences can influence both business and talent recruitment
  • Park and recreation leaders — the agency director and senior leadership team — can become more involved in their region’s economic development planning and activities by building new alliances to promote the value of parks and recreation. Key players that offer opportunities for new partnerships include:
    • Economic development organizations (EDOs)
    • Civic booster organizations, like chambers of commerce and convention and visitors’ bureaus (CVBs)
    • Other municipal departments that shape the quality of life (e.g., public schools, public libraries and transit agencies)
    • Shapers of the built environment (e.g., private-sector developers, downtown development organizations, business improvement districts and metropolitan planning organizations)
    • Neighboring park and recreation agencies and private nonprofit competitors (e.g., YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs)

This last point is critical. Cultivating strong partnerships within and outside the community is key to park and recreation departments being able to grow and thrive in the future. Strong partners can promote and advocate for parks and recreation. Partnerships also create new opportunities for park and recreation agencies to demonstrate their value to a community.

Ensuring Sustainable Future Funding
To be successful, park and recreation leaders must commit to the “long game.” These relationships will not develop overnight, as external partners’ perceptions of parks and recreation likely will need to evolve. As a result, engagement efforts should include not only a park and recreation agency’s director, but also the agency’s entire leadership team. By including the agency’s senior staff in networking opportunities, these relationships will be more sustainable and will foster organizational relationships in addition to personal relationships with partnering agencies and organizations.

I invite you to review the Promoting Parks and Recreation’s Role in Economic Development and then appraise the role your agency plays in local economic development efforts. The report includes examples and mini-case studies, where parks and recreation have been able to bridge the aforementioned perceptions gap and make a real positive mark in recruiting and retaining businesses (and their workers) in the community. Some of these efforts are rather elaborate, while others represent small steps that ensure that parks and recreation will play a more prominent role in future economic development efforts. Whatever the case, raising park and recreation’s visibility in driving economic development is a necessary step we all must embrace to ensure greater and more steady funding in the future."

Kevin Roth, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Research