City Parks Need $263 Million; Report Ranks Recreation Areas Based on Needs; Mayor, Council Have Final Say

Article excerpt

Byline: MARY KELLI PALKA, The Times-Union

It would cost about $263 million to raise the quality of Jacksonville's poorest parks, provide more recreational space to heavily populated areas, improve the city's boat ramps and develop its preservation land, according to a new report.

The city Department of Parks, Recreation and Entertainment compiled the report, which reviewed local recreational needs. Now it is up to Mayor John Peyton and the City Council to determine which recommendations to follow and how to get the money to pay for the improvements and additions. Peyton has also appointed a parks task force to review ways to improve the city's parks system.

The report, released by Peyton's office this week, broke down three major areas of recreational needs: Upgrading the city's parks and adding new ones would cost about $129.7 million; improving and adding to the city's boat ramps would cost about $25.6 million; and developing existing preservation land would cost about $107.5 million.

There's no expectation in the Mayor's Office that the plan could be paid for in one lump sum, said Susie Wiles, Peyton's chief of communications and special initiatives. She said future recreational needs would probably be dealt with incrementally over many years, starting with the issuance of city bonds next year.

In the past, capital improvements for parks have largely been paid for with bond money distributed among council districts. Wiles said the new report shows a way to fund recreational needs based on facts.

"Data-driven decision-making is what this mayor is all about," Wiles said.

The cost estimates are high because the city doesn't have a set capital improvements budget for its parks system, said T.R. Hainline, a member of Peyton's appointed parks task force. With no dedicated revenue stream, such as a set percentage of ad valorem taxes or user fees, the parks department competes each year with other city needs.

"When it comes to accessing critical needs, parks just haven't been first, second or even third," Hainline said.

About $11.3 million would cover upgrading 47 eparks that were called poor or fair in a recent master recreation improvement plan. A detailed matrix, considering numerous items such as safety, condition of equipment and accessibility for disabled people, ranked the priority for the upgrades.

The improvements would bring the city in compliance with a state law through 2008 to improve poor and fair parks, said Phil Bruce, chief of planning for the parks department.

The report also said it would cost about $85.6 million to purchase and develop additional areas for new fields and basketball, tennis or other courts. Bruce said the city is in compliance with the state's requirements, based largely on population needs, for fields and courts through 2010. But he said some areas, such as Arlington, Mandarin and East Jacksonville, are growing rapidly and need additional fields and courts by 2010.

Councilwoman Suzanne Jenkins said she wants to see how the parks department came up with cost estimates. She said she's concerned the estimates could be off, which would leave the city seeking funds later.

Bruce said a city employee, who's also a general contractor, came up with the cost estimates. But he did caution that the estimates are based on today's dollars and don't include inflation prices.

Wiles said the main focus of the report was on upgrading and adding new recreational areas. But it also touched on two other topics: Boat ramps and preservation land.

In the category of boat ramps, for instance, some of the improvements call for repairing drainage and erosion issues, repairing and making walkways accessible for people with disabilities, adding floating docks and upgrading restrooms. The cost to upgrade 19 boat ramp areas would be $2.5 million.

Another $9.1 million would be needed at seven sites to add parking to the boat ramp areas. …