Optimism about our city parks was high in early 2005.
For almost a year, a 14-member task force appointed by Mayor John Peyton had worked to find ways to move our parks system from “the biggest to the best.”
It was a catchy phrase and an ambitious goal.
The “biggest” part had come under Mayor John Delaney with thousands of acres purchased and set aside for preservation.
After meeting 22 times and putting in 2,000 hours of work studying what made other parks systems successful and listening to what the citizens of Jacksonville wanted in their parks, the task force issued its recommendations for becoming “the best” in March 2005.
Among the task force’s many findings, the road map toward success included better funding for parks, improved safety, helping volunteer groups adopt parks, easier access and equality throughout the city.
Then the recession hit.
And the momentum stalled.
A dozen years later, Jacksonville’s parks aren’t close to being “the best.”
Go ahead and accuse me of wearing rose-colored glasses, but there are renewed signs of optimism for our parks.
Mayor Lenny Curry, with the approval of the City Council, has boosted spending on parks, although we are still far short of the $263 million in spending the task force had recommended in 2005.
During her term as council president, Councilwoman Lori Boyer put a special emphasis on bringing more activity to our waterways, including parks on the St. Johns River and its tributaries.
The group she formed to do that continues to meet.
And Councilwoman Anna Lopez Brosche, who followed Boyer as council president, established a special council committee to determine what needs to be done to improve the city’s parks system, which a study of parks systems in the 100 largest U.S. cities ranked 90th for overall quality.
The committee met again last week, and nine of the council members attended — a good sign that the committee’s work is being taken seriously.
Much of that work is basic stuff.
A stickler for such things, Boyer wants to know if the city is meeting the requirements for parks as outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan — the amount of acreage set aside for parks, the number of ball fields, etc.
Are developers setting aside land for parks as they are required to do, or in the alternative, are they giving money to the city for park development?
Are there ways to find more money for parks? For example, some cities require developers of residences to contribute a set amount per unit for parks.
How can the city ensure that when something is broken, it is fixed quickly?
And how can park safety be improved, not only inside the parks but also how children get to them?
Councilman Reggie Brown pointed out there are no sidewalks along a section of a busy road leading to a well-used park in his district, which creates a dangerous situation for the numerous children who go to the park.
The committee will now focus on answering such questions. It’s important work and will require long-term commitment to finally reach the goal established in 2005.
For success, the community will have to share in that commitment.
One such effort came earlier this month from the Mercedes-Benz USA operations on the Northside.
A $95,000 grant from the company and the volunteer work of more than 65 of the company’s employees provided a facelift for the park at Garden City Elementary.
There are opportunities galore for other companies and groups to pitch in.
When I wrote a column about the task force’s report in 2005, I concluded like this:
“We want a parks system that meets the needs of all areas of town. We want a parks system that is an exclamation point for why Jacksonville is such a great place to live.”
That remains our so-far unfulfilled goal.
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