Sherryll Henderson White has seen many changes in her nearly 37 years with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, but one of the most troubling has been a steady decrease in funding.
The outgoing director, who is in her last week before retirement, said crews do a fine job maintaining the parks with what they have, but funding from the city is a matter of priorities and while she thinks her department is vital, others disagree.
“There’s just so much money to go around and where do you rank in reference to what’s more important?” White asked. “Parks, as far as I’m concerned, should be high on the list, but that’s not everyone’s view.”
White, who started in the department as a community activities coordinator in 1977, said more capital funding for parks could help upgrade lighting, as well as drainage and irrigation.
“What we have we’re very proud of,” she said. “We’re doing the best quality of work we can provide.”
Councilman John Williams agrees that funding for maintenance of parks is a problem, but calls the current condition of local parks something between adequate and deplorable. Yet he has some creative ideas to help fix the problem.
For one, Williams believes in soliciting sponsorships for local parks, as a way to defray the maintenance costs. He admitted that sponsorships might not work for every business, but some might jump at the opportunity.
“We find guys it’s a great fit for,” he said. “Who knows, Nike and Under Armor and all these guys, they say, ‘we’ll do that, what are you talking about.’”
White said she believes public-private partnerships are part of the future of her department and can’t be ignored.
“We’ve been doing it for quite a while, but we’re going to have to step up our game,” she said. “We have a lot of people coming to us and offering their services, but we need to seek some.”
Some residents already help the department maintain some of the smaller community parks on a volunteer basis, White said. Families and coaches may help cutting grass, lining baseball fields, or picking up trash, she said.
“Community involvement has always been important and will continue to grow,” White said.
Williams said he’s approached Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office about contracting some of the park maintenance work to residents and businesses with the equipment to handle the job.
“Within their performance contract they are able to do things to maintain that park and they can do it for a percentage of what the city is charged,” Williams said.
As a sort of hybrid between the idea of sponsorships and performance contracts, Williams said a park sponsor could pay to have the maintenance work contracted out, as well.
Councilman Levon Manzie, who proposed the formation of a Parks Advisory Committee during Tuesday’s council meeting, agreed that park sponsorship is promising, but cautioned about relying solely on sponsorships as a form of funding.
“I would like to see that happen,” Manzie said. “It’s a great idea, but I don’t think the condition of our parks should be predicated on the generosity of businesses.”
He said parks are still the responsibility of the city.
“I don’t think we just throw up our hands and say the only solution is public-private partnerships,” Manzie said.
Manzie’s proposal would form a committee consisting of an appointee from each council district, as well as a senior representative and a youth representative. He said the committee would work closely with the Parks and Recreation director, the administration and the Council on issues involving the city’s 68 parks. He said the group would advise officials and have a “wide scope of responsibility.”
Manzie said he came up with the proposal after hearing from citizens across his district who wanted more input on parks.
“In an effort to have more transparency, I think this will go a long way in allowing public input on what we’re doing,” he said.
Complaints about operational hours, amenities and disparities among parks are some of the bigger issues Manzie said he’s heard about from citizens.
“These are some things I think will be resolved to some point with input from residents,” he said.
Manzie said he hopes once the city’s general fund is weaned off the use of capital funds, there can be more investment in the parks system.
“Things citizens want cost money and resources,” he said.
As far as the future of parks, White has a few ideas she’d like to see expanded upon. For one she would like to the see the department explore more cultured activities, like painting and sculpting because “not every child wants to be an athlete.”
She added that more accessibility to hiking, biking and boating trails would allow for more healthy activities.
“I want to see more with health and fitness programs,” she said. “I’d like to see us – Mobile is surrounded by water – promote fishing. People do fish, you know, but promote more fishing areas.”