Parks investment eyed as potential economic driver

Williamsport spends “on the low end” of cities its size on parks and recreation, two consultants told City Council Thursday.

The city recently spent about $302,000, or less than 2 percent of its budget on recreation, according to Jason Fitzgerald, president of Penn Strategies, a paid city economic development consultant. Joining him was the firm’s vice president, Phil Trometter.

In their report, which provided and overview and outline to continue on the city’s master parks improvement plan, one originating in 2006, the consultants said they believe the time is ripe to reinvest in parks and if it doesn’t happen the city loses a key economic driver to attract and maintain existing residents and those seeking to call Williamsport their home.

The city can’t afford not to invest and improve the park network, which includes city-owned parks: Memorial Park, Brandon Park, Shaw Place Park and Young’s Woods Park, and other parks that are not maintained by the city, according to the consultants.

The deficit of spending on recreation and parks is noticeable to the team working on the research.

“We’ve researched cities of comparable size and classification in regards to the relationship between their spending on recreation and their overall economic health,” Fitzgerald said.

Conversely, Sunbury has put $592,000 in its parks and recreation and Montoursville invested $334,169 in its parks, he said.

He noted that Scranton, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, is losing its population, and was recently forced to sell its water system to generate enough cash to run annual operations.

Meanwhile, he said, Lancaster and Allentown, which are considered “comeback cities,” after years of decline, invested more than 4 percent of their budget in recreation.

The consultants also view parks as a means of stopping downturns in neighborhoods.

Millennials, senior citizens and those who can benefit from a city that has seen a resurgence because of the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom, which is starting to see a revival, and may see continued economic improvement through partnerships with UPMC Susquehanna, Pennsylvania College of Technology, Lycoming College and the various other non-profit organizations and public and private school districts, the park report indicates.

Because of the urgency to promote the city in a more positive light and use its existing natural assets, a figure of at least $1.5 million over three years was presented.

“We could try to get grants as they become available,” Fitzgerald said. Other funding sources might include special appropriations and private sector donations, he said.

Communities that individuals find attractive are places where they can recreate, play and relax, said Council President Jonathan Williamson, who supported, as did others on council, the revival and restoration of parks, as funding becomes available.

More investment could help to revive the city on the verge of bringing in talented individuals to work in new fields, senior citizens calling the city their home and families and individuals with children to use the parks for their intended purposes — to relax, exercise, recreate and look at nature’s beauty, Fitzgerald said.

“The city cannot be the place where all of the county’s poverty is centered,” he said.

“Potential funding for the improvement of parks could be found by going after grants,” Fitzgerald said.

For example, the city is planning to put $500,000 of improvements in Brandon Park, part of which was done by the city obtaining a grant from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The bandshell at that park was described by Fitzgerald as “falling apart.”

Park improvements there include resurfacing of the tennis courts, additional more powerful and energy efficient lights, a natural walking path for educational purposes, and new sidewalks and a bio-retention pond doubling as part of the city meeting its stormwater management requirements to reduce sediment and pollution and clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Memorial Park has a new swimming pool but can use additional facility improvements, such as a rubber placement at the playground and additional access for those requiring handicapped accessibility.

It lies across the street from Elm Park, which has baseball and softball fields and skateboard park.

“We see a three-year plan,” Fitzgerald said, adding that capital campaigns should be considered, such as one established by council for the long-term maintenance of Splash Cove, the aquatic facility at Memorial Park.

Other parks on the list for targeted improvements include Shaw Place Park and Young’s Woods Park, both of which are in the city’s East End.