The New West

The past decade has seen mountains of change in the Intermountain West. Once a collection of far-flung semi-cities in and around the Rockies, places like Boise, Idaho, have witnessed a population surge that has given these towns a decidedly metropolitan feel.

Ironically, the same people who flocked to these centers west of the Continental Divide to pursue a higher quality of life have found that growth tends to lower the living standard.

Rather than retreat to an urban mindset, the Boise parks and recreation department has been actively working to keep Boise’s long-standing history of outdoor recreation.

“We have to re-engineer what we do and how we show the public that we have a lot of value to provide. I don’t think it’s a matter of being over-capacity at our parks. In fact, I don’t think we’re using our parks, facilities and programs to the fullest we can use them,” explains James Hall, Boise’s director of parks and recreation.

“It’s not about having too little; it’s just that we haven’t thought big enough on how to make our parks even more open and available to the public.”

Even so, having land available for new and ongoing parks projects is cited by Hall as one of most important factors any parks and recreation department should actively engage in to ensure a dynamic and active parks program. It’s also one of the hardest things to do, for a number of reasons.

“Most people don’t want to go out and buy the land. If you’re a politician you want to build something, cut a ribbon and have people jumping up and down for joy that you put that new playground in their neighborhood,” says Hall.

“But if you’re patient enough you’ll realize that when you buy the land, the value back to you is greater being a partner with groups like the Optimist Club, a developer or youth soccer. We can’t go out, buy the land and expect to develop all of it right away. Those who really want the facilities have the will and the way to come up with the money.”

People want instant results, but those don’t happen unless the land is already available. That’s one reason Boise’s parks and recreation department has purchased over 1,000 acres of land, encompassing 35 park sites, over the last nine years.

Partners that Last

With the land available, and the long-range master plan developed, it’s a matter of plugging interested partners into the available land parcels.

Hall says that a fairly common situation is someone wants to memorialize a loved one through some type of parks program or facility. Sometimes they have something specific in mind — like a playground — and sometimes they don’t.

Either way, Hall works to direct their donation into something that’s already in the department’s plan and where the land is ready to use.

“For the most part we’re successful in getting them to do it, because people recognize that if they’re going to spend their money they don’t want to spend it on something people won’t appreciate,” explains Hall.

“The way you build flexibility in the plan is that you want the end result to be what you envisioned it to be in the first place. If someone wants to give you money toward a playground and the playground is supposed to be there at the end of that five- or ten-year horizon then you’ve done the right thing. If it doesn’t meet your plan and it doesn’t fit, you have to be courageous enough to say, ‘This is really where we need to be headed in order to keep our plan.’ If you put that playground in a park that doesn’t need one, it will be a waste, and they’ll be mad because you didn’t convince them not to put it on that spot in the first place.”

Hall says that the department will not enter into a partnership agreement unless they have the funds to maintain it. From there the proposal is taken to city council where the parameters are laid out, like partner responsibilities, the number of citizens impacted, cost sharing and so forth.

“Because of the economy we’re trying to do smaller partnerships. We’re hunkering down a little bit and doing a lot of smaller partnerships that are less maintenance intensive. You have to be creative, and look at how you can make the partnership work,” says Hall.

Hall points to a couple of partnership programs that help illustrate its unique approach. One of these was its second skatepark, and the other — with the local power company — is on the drawing board.

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