Allegheny County goes after private help for parks

Calling system a priority, Onorato creates a nonprofit board to foster public-private partnership

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Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato yesterday unveiled plans to create a nonprofit board to raise private funds for the county's nine regional parks and to establish public-private partnerships to operate some of the parks' major attractions and amenities.

The board, to be named within two months, initially will be funded with $1 million from the county's capital budget. Mr. Onorato pledged to match dollar-for-dollar with county funds any private monies the nonprofit organization raises. He put no cap on how much the county would match.

Mr. Onorato said the parks, totaling more than 12,000 acres, are among the county's major assets, noting that it likely amounts to the highest acreage per capita in any county in the United States. So large is the county's park acreage, he noted, that the smallest of the nine, Harrison Hills, with 500 acres, is larger than the city's Schenley Park, with 420 acres.

Mr. Onorato said the parks need an infusion of private money to adequately fund deferred maintenance, recreational improvements and facility enhancements. He pledged that the time of county government treating parks as a frill to be ignored in tough economic times has ended.

"First and foremost, this is about the quality of life in Allegheny County," he said at a news conference unveiling the plans. "These parks are among the biggest assets we have.

"We are now going to make the parks a priority for this government going forward. We are serious about getting our assets up and running."

The action plan outlined by Mr. Onorato stems from recommendations in a "revenue sources management study" completed a month ago by the American Institute for Leisure Resources. The $25,000 study was funded by a grant from the Richard King Mellon and Benedum foundations.

"The existing and proposed service levels for park maintenance, recreation programs and environmental facilities have outstripped the available sources of revenue, creating a major unfunded backlog of current and future needs," the study reported.

In reality, the report said, there can only be two outcomes regarding the county park system -- "either lowering of the standard of living or the generation of new sources of revenue."

Among the report's recommendations the county will explore is requesting proposals from private companies for adaptive uses of the North Park Boathouse, Hartwood Stables, South Park Fairgrounds and Boyce Park Four Seasons Activity Center, including the skiing and tubing areas.

The county also will seek a private operator for tennis courts in Boyce, North and Settler's Cabin parks and will secure the services of the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Fla., to review the county's golf course operations in North and South parks.

Mr. Onorato said new, creative uses would enhance and expand what the parks already provide while creating new funding for them.

He gave assurance there will be no "tacky" or inappropriate uses, noting that County Council and the chief executive will maintain final say on what happens in the parks.

As an example of the potential of private-public partnerships in parks, he pointed to a lease agreement he announced in May 2006 with the Horticultural Society of Western Pennsylvania to provide a 452-acre parcel in Settler's Cabin Park for the Botanic Garden of Western Pennsylvania.

The agreement will allow the Horticultural Society to develop, construct and operate the garden on the county-owned land after first undertaking a massive land reclamation project to deal with underlying mines and mine drainage. Removing the mines and compacting soil on the site will effectively end acid drainage that has been polluting the groundwater and two local streams for years.

It is estimated the Botanic Garden will draw more than 300,000 visitors annually, ranking it among the region's most visited attractions, he said.

Also being explored as a new funding generator for the nine county parks is the possibility of selling naming rights, he said.

As a cost-saving move, Mr. Onorato has directed staff to explore working with the justice system and law enforcement agencies to establish a supplemental labor force to perform special maintenance projects in the regional parks. This work force could include minor offenders, community service workers, welfare workers and juvenile work crews.

Mr. Onorato said he plans to have "town hall" meetings at each of the parks to facilitate local input about what's desired and needed and to "re-engage" the friends organizations at each of the nine parks.

To illustrate his commitment to the parks plans, Mr. Onorato noted that he has named a County Parks Action Plan Implementation Team of top county officials including Deputy County Manager Kathleen McKenzie, Parks Director Andrew Baechle, Public Works Director Tom Donatelli, Economic Development Director Dennis Davin and Administrative Services Director Tim Johnson.


Michael A. Fuoco can be reached at mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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