Paying for Parks

Centerpiece for the Gresham Outlook investigating a lack of funding for parks and what the city can do to improve green spaces, recreation for youths

Children play at Nadaka Nature Park in Gresham, which had to slash programs and maintenance due to a lack of funds from the city.

Growing up in North Portland, Anthony Bradley and Terrell Brandon had dreams of playing in the National Basketball Association. 

Almost every afternoon the two friends would head over to Unthank Park, in North Portland, where they would spend hours and hours shooting hoops. Their favorite game was to yell out a countdown, “3-2-1,” and then heave up a shot pretending it was a game-winner in the NBA Finals. 

While Bradley and Brandon were visiting that park daily, Portland Parks and Recreation brought in official programming. They created youth basketball teams and leagues that allowed for more structure during their play. Mentors and coaches helped guide the kids, and official games allowed the pair to actually try their hand at last-second shots. 

“Those programs helped us achieve our dreams,” Bradley said.

Brandon would go on to be a first round draft pick by the Cleveland Cavaliers and have an 11-year career in the NBA, while Bradley became the executive director of Gresham’s Play Grow Learn, a youth and family services program that helps other young people achieve their goals. 

A few years after Bradley and Brandon stopped going to Unthank Park, the city of Portland ceased that crucial programming. 

“Shortly after it left, the park was overrun by gangs and the devastation of drugs, murder, and other illegal activities,” Bradley said. “The benefits of a parks program can work for the entire community and have far-reaching potential.” 

For Bradley, having a stable park in his neighborhood where he could play in a safe space allowed him to avoid pitfalls that tripped some of his peers. It was more than just a block dedicated to greenery and amenities, but the programming that made Unthank Park a special place. 

And now Bradley is just one of many voices calling for more robust funding for Gresham’s many parks. That topic was front and center at a recent Gresham Council Listening Session, where three elected officials and many staff members heard concerns and ideas from community members. 

“Our parks are woefully underfunded — we are not naive about that,” said Councilor Karylinn Echols, who helmed the Tuesday evening, Jan. 28, listening session. 

Extensive expenses

Parks funding has to address several aspects within the city. 

The money would support Gresham looking to plan and acquire land for future natural areas; develop parks on land that was banked years ago; upgrade amenities and infrastructure at existing parks; continue maintenance; and form programming and recreation opportunities, like the ones that uplifted Bradley in North Portland. 

It could also increase the number of full-time staff members dedicated to maintenance. Currently there are only eight people assigned to dealing with all of the natural areas in Gresham, which is nowhere near enough. 

“We don’t have the manpower to bring these parks to what we want them to be,” said Jim Card, the driving force behind Tsuru Island, Gresham’s Japanese Garden. 

Gresham has 56 parks accounting for more than 300 acres of space. There is also an extensive trail network and many natural and green spaces. City leadership has stressed many times the importance of supporting the young families and children flocking to the community — a passion that began in Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis’ office and permeated throughout City Hall.

Parks are an important part of that equation. They offer free attractions and gathering places for community members who aren’t able to afford vacations or other pricey recreational options. 

“If there is a non-partisan issue, it’s parks,” said Councilor Jerry Hinton. 

And while the city has been creative in leveraging grants and partnerships to provide opportunities like Friday and Saturday Night Basketball, Sunday Futsal, Summer Kids in the Park, and more, there is only so much that can be done on a shoestring budget. 

“The city doesn’t have an extensive recreation program,” said Steve Fancher, Gresham’s public works director. 

Germaine Flentroy, program coordinator for the nonprofit organization Play Grow Learn, spoke passionately about the need for culturally specific amenities, especially for the African American community. 

“We play basketball — we need more access to courts,” he said. “We want these parks to be safe for our kids.” 

Flentroy said that without giving children a safe place to go, it leads to dangerous situations and trouble. 

Another concern brought up during the meeting was new development exploding across the city, creating clusters of people without easy access to a park. In the Civic Neighborhood, more than 750 apartment units are being erected. Eventually, those families will need a place to play. 

In the short term, there are several new green spaces that will be coming to the community. 

Gabbert Butte Nature Park is being funded by Metro Regional Government and should be completed by 2021; $2 million in state lottery funding will be used to commence the second phase of Gradin Sports Park; and Gresham is set to receive a $4 million share from a Metro Parks and Nature Bond that was approved by voters in 2019.

Adam Kohl, founder and executive director with the nonprofit Outgrowing Hunger, a group that develops community garden plots, stressed the importance of Gresham matching one-time windfalls with land banking while reserving ongoing revenue for maintenance. 

“You have to match the length of the liability with the length of the income,” Kohl said. 

Potential solutions

Twenty years ago, two ballot measures passed in Gresham that severally hamstringed the city’s ability to fund parks. The vote set a permanent property tax that was the second lowest in the state. 

“We are in a very difficult situation with our General Fund,” Echols said. 

The fallout was immediate. In 1990, Gresham’s property taxes paid for 100% of police and fire services. Now, those taxes are only able to foot 40% of those expenses. As a result the city had to get creative in filling in the gaps. With the priority being safety, police and fire get the lion’s share, leaving parks to wither. 

During the listening session, Gresham staff highlighted several long-term solutions that could bolster the city’s struggling parks funding. 

“There are pros and cons to all of these,” Fancher said. 

The city could create a new “Park Utility” fee collected as an addition to the water bill. That would allow for dedicating funds straight to parks, though the city would have to decide whether to make it a regressive or progressive tax. 

Gresham could increase the existing Police-Fire-Parks fee that was enacted in 2012. That fee currently collects $15 every two months per property, and is probably in need of an increase to match inflation. The problem with using that fee to fund natural spaces is parks receives 5% of the money, so it would only scratch the surface of what the community wants to see.

The city could go for an Operations Levy/Bond Measure, which would also collect money from property taxes and would require voter approval. But voters have shown a lack of appetite for that type of solution, shooting down a Community Center bond in 2016 with a 56% no vote. 

Finally, Gresham could form a parks district, which was the most popular choice for the meeting’s attendees. A decision that would also require voter approval, a parks district collects money from resident’s property taxes. It can be its own entity or be run by the city, and has the possibility of looping in other municipalities like Fairview, Troutdale and Wood Village and unincorporated communities like Corbett and Damascus to expand its scope. 

“These are all high-level, big picture funding options,” Fancher said. 

Parks District

Lee Dayfield is someone who has been fighting for a parks district for more than a decade. 

“I think if people knew what a parks district could do for the city of Gresham, they would bend over backward for it,” she said. 

A shining example lies just a short jaunt across the region. The Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District west of downtown Portland is a feat of parks funding. Approved by voters in 1955, it is now the largest special parks district in Oregon, spanning 50 square miles and serving 250,000 residents across Beaverton and Washington County. 

That district provides year-round recreational opportunities for all ages, maintains 95 park sites with amenities, 70 miles of trails, eight swim centers, six recreation centers and 1,500 acres of natural areas. 

“It’s overwhelming,” said Dayfield, who is a green space champion, having been the driving force behind the creation of Nadaka Nature Park. 

A parks district has the power to construct, reconstruct, alter, enlarge, operate and maintain lakes, parks, recreation grounds and buildings; acquire necessary lands; and to call elections after being formed.

Several groups have already formally announced support for a feasibility study based on creating a local parks and recreation district, including the Gresham Neighborhood Association Coalition. 

In 2010, a push for a parks district would have enacted a $0.25 property tax levy to generate roughly $2.1 million a year. If the smaller cities had been included, the cost would have been a range of $31 to $53 annually for the average home in East Multnomah County. According to studies, the larger a parks district the more of a chance it has to thrive. 

Advocates are excited about the possibility of a robust parks district. 

A representative from the Gresham Barlow Youth Baseball/Softball League spoke in favor of a district because it would help bolster sports in the community. More regional and statewide tournaments would mean more visitors to Gresham, including tourism dollars for food, lodging and shopping. 

Mt. Hood Community College officials see a parks district as a potential funding source for their outdoor pool, which is in need of an inflatable cover. For others, it answered their calls for programming and services, amenities like benches for seniors, community gardens, dog parks, a community center and more. 

Nothing is set in stone. The Gresham City Council will discuss parks funding throughout 2020, including how to spend its portion of the Metro bond. And whether they settle on a parks district or one of the other funding methods, many community members agree support is needed for Gresham’s parks. 

“We all care about parks,” Dayfield said. “Something has to be done.”

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