Parks and recreation departments provide essential public services, but funding constraints prevent many from adding more beneficial programs. Most local departments rely on tax-based revenue from general funds. Non-tax revenue generated from fees, permits, sponsorships, and donations is often a smaller but vital funding source. Amenities that incorporate cost-recovery features, such as user fees, can help parks and recreation departments enrich and sustain recreational offerings without creating a budget shortfall.
It is essential to recognize that each local government is different, and therefore cost-recovery policies should incorporate a community's unique values. For example, if there is consensus that a program substantially benefits the community as a whole, a department may be less inclined to collect fees. On the other hand, a department may collect fees for an amenity that primarily benefits individuals, such as campsite rentals or classes. Some departments formally adopt cost recovery policies to address these issues transparently.
Most departments generate non-tax revenue from facility rentals and concessions. However, some cities are seeing success with creative, less common amenities.
The following is a list of out-of-the-box ideas that your department might consider implementing.
Dog park lectures from local experts
It's no secret that the number of dog parks is rising across the country. While most cities with dog parks do not collect user fees, some departments provide special on-site programming and charge a sign-up fee. Cities can invite local canine experts to host sessions on topics including behavior training, dog park etiquette, skills course activities, and hiking. This programming can help both dogs and dog owners feel more comfortable at the park, while enhancing safety, and encouraging healthy, active lifestyles.
Food truck courts
Because of the rising popularity of food trucks, food truck courts are becoming more common. Food truck courts allow parks departments to provide park visitors with locally sourced refreshment options without the high operating cost of a concession stand. Cities can rent food truck bays to private operators on an annual or a short-term basis. The bays typically include electricity, water, seating, and trash receptacles at a minimum. Offering rental space for food trucks can be an excellent option for cities with a strong food truck presence. Some ideal locations for food truck courts include splash pads, playgrounds, ball fields, and trailheads. Food trucks can even operate alongside traditional concession stands during popular events.
Many parks departments own vacant land containing wetlands and ecologically sensitive areas. While it is likely not appropriate to charge a use fee to access these valuable assets, there may be community interest in paid ecological tours hosted by local experts. Guided tours can teach participants about migrating waterfowl, native plants, fish, insects, amphibians, and other local wildlife. Wetland boardwalks provide an elevated walkway through these otherwise inaccessible areas with minimal environmental impact. Additionally, connecting these boardwalks to local trail systems can increase access and feasibility of such programming.
Pavilions and shade structures
While pavilions and shade structures are not a new concept in parks, there are now sophisticated online reservation systems that simplify the process for both users and local governments. Some of these systems allow owners to adjust rental rates based on demand. A modern reservation system paired with shade structures placed in desirable locations can increase revenue for parks departments and provide a versatile amenity for the community.
A well-designed amphitheater can host concerts, plays, and other community events planned by parks and recreation departments. To help offset the cost of the facility, there may be opportunities for private rentals. Location is key to the viability of a city-owned amphitheater, and a smartly designed venue can pay for itself over time both directly through rental fees and indirectly through economic boosts to surrounding businesses. Architectural character, access, seating, and audio and visual technology are vital considerations for a venue capable of generating revenue.
Aside from these revenue-generating options for municipalities, public grants can offer funding sources as well. These grants are often a viable funding source for local park improvement projects, especially those that involve trail and accessibility improvements. Many local governments rely on state-administered, federal-aid programs, such as the Recreational Trails Program, to bolster available funding for expansions and improvements to parks systems. Combining grants with any of these cost-recovery ideas can allow budget-constrained parks departments to better serve their communities through expanded and enriched offerings.