If Texans were surveyed to see if they could identify a surprising source of over $6 billion in annual economic activity producing more than 50,000 jobs in the state, I wouldn’t have expected many of them to know the answer.
Heck, until this past week I couldn’t have come close to the correct answer either.
Like just about everyone else, I might have guessed some kind of business enterprise as the obvious source of those billions of dollars pouring into our economy.
The unexpected right response would be that those numbers are generated by the operations of local and regional parks.
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Really? Well, yes. For the first time we have the results of a comprehensive national study focusing exclusively on the effects parks have on economic productivity.
The report just released was commissioned by the National Recreation and Park Association and conducted by the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.
Research for businesses, governments, and nonprofit agencies is the concentration of the Center’s nationally recognized work.
Findings are described as conservative, as the study was exclusively focused on spending by park agencies for employee salaries and business transactions with contractors and vendors.
The research does not measure visitor spending or the benefits local parks generate for the environment, health and wellness, and property values.
Up to now, most of us likely relate to our parks as a public amenity and an enhancement to our quality of life.
They are places where we find opportunity for activities ranging from a leisurely stroll along a trail to watching our kids develop their athletic skills on fields of play.
And myriad other things we can find in these places we enjoy so much.
But it is unlikely we recognize parks as an economic engine in our communities. Intuitively, we see them as something we fund with our tax dollars, and in most cities the park department finds itself far down the list of priorities at budget time.
As a result, our parks are often overcrowded. Sometimes we can’t find a parking place, much less the experience we were looking for.
But maybe that’s changing even before we were enlightened by this new study.
In the latest bond elections in both Fort Worth and Arlington, the parks proposals were second only to measures for road building and transportation initiatives.
Fort Worth recommended addressing needs at athletic fields, community and tennis centers, a levee for the nature center, erosion issues, park roads and parking lots, park security, playgrounds, a golf course and some walks and trails.
In Arlington, the largest sum in any park bond election included plans for new recreation centers, an aquatic facility, sports center and golf course renovations, and improvements and new facilities at a dozen more existing parks.
Voters in both cities said yes in significant majorities.
Now with word of the economic impact in addition to all the usual reasons we like parks, we could see even greater public support at the polls in future bond elections.
Nationally, the economic significance to the entire country for local parks is measured at $140 billion and supports almost a million jobs.
According to the study, only three states enjoy higher returns than ours. California, Florida, and Illinois are ahead of us. You can see all the results of the research and check out every state at the National Recreation and Park Association website.
A major conclusion in the report declares, “Policymakers and elected officials at all levels of government should take notice. Investments made to local and regional parks not only raise the standard of living in our neighborhoods, towns and cities, but they also spark activity that can ripple throughout the economy.”
Now we know.
Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor and served as an appointee of President George W. Bush as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.