By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on the city of Enid’s “Quality of Life” election slated for Tuesday.)
As Enid voters consider a $50 million parks plan, residents in a growing number of communities around the state already are paying for, constructing and utilizing parks and quality-of-life improvement projects.
These projects range from maintenance and upgrades at existing parks, to massive new construction projects that dwarf the plan coming before voters in Enid, relative to the population size and city budget.
While the size of these communities and their parks plans vary significantly, most cite very similar reasons for investing in parks and recreation improvements: to improve residents’ quality of life; to attract new businesses and new residents; to increase property values; and to increase the city’s sales tax revenue.
Joe Howell, president of Howell & Vancuren Inc., said cities have both quality-of- life and economic-development benefits to consider when looking at parks improvements.
Howell & Vancuren is the Tulsa-based landscape architecture and site planning firm that prepared the city of Enid’s parks audit and parks master plan, from which the current parks proposal was drawn.
“When you improve your parks you provide more opportunities, especially for young people, to get out and enjoy the outdoors, and there are obvious benefits to that,” Howell said. “Visitors’ perceptions of your city also are greatly enhanced when you have a vibrant parks department.”
But, aside from those esoteric rewards, Howell said cities receive some very tangible returns on their investment when they improve parks and recreation facilities.
One of those tangible benefits comes from increased property values near new or improved parks, leading to greater resale values for homeowners and higher ad valorem tax collections for the city and schools.
“Parks increase property values,” Howell said in an email to the Enid News & Eagle. “The actual increase is dependent upon the community and condition and type of park, but 20 percent (increase) for properties abutting a park is a figure commonly noted in studies.”
Howell said increased property values due to park construction can extend in a 2-3 block radius from a neighborhood park, to as far as a half mile from larger community parks, such as the one proposed at 30th and Randolph.
New parks also can have an impact on home buyers’ selection of a new community, according to a 2001 survey by the National Association of Home Builders, provided by Howell.
That study found 65 percent of people shopping for a new home “felt that parks would seriously influence their decision to move to a community.”
New athletic fields also increase a community’s ability to attract school and extracurricular sports tournaments, and the money that comes with the athletes, families and fans.
Howell provided data taken from tournament-related revenue in Broken Arrow, where Howell & Vancuren developed a parks plan, including ball fields.
Howell said the direct economic benefit of a girls’ softball tournament consisting of 25 teams, assuming 75 percent of the teams came from outside of Enid, would be $195,000.
Those direct benefits come from money spent by the athletes and visitors during their stay in Enid.
That money, in turn, creates indirect benefits, such as new jobs and infrastructure to support the tournament; and induced benefits, when that initial $195,000 is re-spent and re-invested over time in local businesses.
Howell said the indirect and induced benefits from that initial $195,000 range as high as $1 million.
Cities often cite parks development as a means of boosting sales tax revenue, but usually have a hard time pointing to an exact dollar figure that comes directly from people visiting parks, and perhaps shopping or dining during their stay.
In an effort to provide a benchmark for the economic impact of parks, an urban and regional planning workshop at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2005 conducted a study of Jefferson County, Wis.
The study, “Measuring the Economic Impact and Value of Parks, Trails and Open Space,” determined approximately $13 million in total annual, value-added income and 420 jobs were created in Jefferson County as a result of public parks and trails.
Howell said the Jefferson County example could be compared to Enid by looking at their respective population sizes and park areas: Jefferson County has a population of approximately 85,000 and park acreage of 550, compared to Enid’s figures of approximately 50,000 and 390, respectively.
But, Howell & Vancuren and the city of Enid aren’t the only ones looking at the revenue studies for parks and recreation.
Numerous Oklahoma cities are planning, implementing or have completed parks projects, ranging from upgrading existing parks to building large new athletic complexes and civic recreation centers.
Chuck Dougherty, economic development director for the city of Weatherford, said the economic impacts of parks were a primary consideration in planning $2 million worth of recent parks upgrades.
Most of the work focused on adding equipment to or improving existing facilities in the city of about 12,000 people. A new skate park, splash pad, tennis courts and basketball courts also were added.
The parks improvements were funded by a portion of a 10-year extension of a one-cent capital improvement sales tax.
Dougherty said Weatherford has seen noticeable benefits from the parks improvements, both in quality of life for the residents and in sales tax revenue from visitors.
“We feel like it’s worth it, and a good way to invite people to visit your community,” Dougherty said. “And, when they visit your community, they spend money and they help your sales tax revenue. We feel like the sales tax benefits are more than going to outweigh the money we’ve spent on the parks and the ongoing maintenance and facilities costs.”
Stewart Fairburn, Chickasha city manager, also cited sales tax revenue and quality-of-life improvements as the motivating factors behind building the city’s $9 million sports complex.
Fairburn said the complex of ball fields and facilities, located within view of passersby on I-44, has attracted major tournaments, boosted sales tax revenue and greatly increased exposure for the city of Chickasha.
“The sports complex has a dual purpose,” Fairburn said. “It’s not only good for our local quality of life, which is important to making sure Chickasha stays viable, but the sports complex also has a tourism attraction to it. It brings in people who might see Chickasha, and then come back to enjoy other parts of the town.”
The complex was funded with a 10-year issue on dedicated sales tax funds.
While Chickasha’s $9 million investment from a city of 16,000 people is considerable, there is perhaps no greater per capita parks investment in the state than the ongoing development of parks in the city of Woodward.
In 2006, Woodward voters approved extending a half-cent sales tax to fund $25 million in improvements to Crystal Beach, the city’s 160-acre parks complex.
With the $25 million, the city built a new aquatics center; built five baseball fields and is building five softball fields; renovated existing ball fields; rehabilitated the rodeo grounds and developed an event arena at the rodeo grounds.
Woodward City Manager Alan Riffel said the improvements to Crystal Beach have been a boon to the local economy.
He said the new fields attract regional tournaments; the rodeo arena now attracts more and larger rodeos, and also hosts monster truck shows and concerts; and the aquatics center now draws 350-500 people a day during the summer, replacing a previous municipal pool that rarely attracted more than 50 people per day in its final seasons.
But, Woodward isn’t done investing in parks with completion of the $25 million plan – that was just phase one.
Phases two and three include addition of new soccer fields, trails, tennis courts and a gymnasium, at a cost of $5 million per phase — $10 million on top of phase one for a total project cost of $35 million.
That’s all from city sales tax coffers.
Woodward County voters last month voted by a margin of almost 60 percent to up the ante on facilities upgrades, approving a half-cent county sales tax to fund $12.4 million in construction and improvements at the county fairgrounds.
That project includes construction of a 60,000 square-foot expo center and renovation of existing facilities.
Taken all together, Woodward voters in the last six years have approved $47 million in parks and recreation facilities.
Given Woodward’s population of 12,000 people and its annual city budget of about $42 million, that $47 million investment in parks and recreation on a per-capita basis is roughly four times the size of the investment being considered in Enid – all funded by dedicated sales tax revenue.
James Curtiss, executive director of the Woodward Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the quality-of-life investments being made in Woodward have been essential to filling the city’s new $7 million conference center.
The conference center, which opened last March, was funded by loans, separate from and in addition to the $47 million parks and recreation spending already mentioned.
Curtiss said business conferences and tourism go hand-in-hand: — tourism visitors often will return as business travelers, and vice versa, and in both cases, they increase sales tax revenue.
He said tourism to Woodward has increased more than tenfold since the Crystal Beach and fairgrounds improvements began.
“Five years ago, we had 10,000 to 15,000 tourists coming to Woodward each year that we could identify,” Curtiss said. “Now, we can identify upwards of 186,000 people who came here last year for different events.”
He said convention and business travel to Woodward has followed suit.
When the new conference center opened last year, Curtiss said the city set a goal of hosting 18-25 events in the first year.
The facility far surpassed that goal, hosting 150 events between March and December last year. Curtiss said 181 events already are booked for 2013, with 240 expected by year’s end.
He said Enid is positioned to enjoy the same kind of increased traffic and revenue, both with business traffic to the Event Center and Convention Hall, and with increased visitors drawn by the Quality of Life investments.
“Your new conference center is great, because it will bring you business,” Curtiss said, referring to the Enid Event Center. “But, what you’re missing is the other part of it — the quality-of-life piece.
“Enid has the same opportunities we’ve taken advantage of, with your new conference center and upgrading your parks. One feeds the other, all the time.”
In addition to attracting new tourism and business travel, parks and recreation facilities also can be useful in attracting new residents.
Brent Kisling, executive director of Enid Regional Development Alliance, said assistance in attracting new workers would be one of the major benefits of the Quality of Life plan.
“Our biggest economic development issue in Enid right now is not job creation,” Kisling said. “Our biggest issue is bringing people to town to fill the jobs.”
Kisling said efforts to market local jobs on a regional and national level and the ongoing Enid branding campaign are helping attract attention from prospective employees.
“But,” he said, “we have to make a good impression as a community when we do finally bring the people to town, and in order to do that, you have to have nice sporting venues for children, you have to have wellness opportunities for people such as the trails, and you’ve got to have nice parks and green spaces for families to enjoy.”
Don Hackler, public information officer for the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, said companies want to know about available quality-of-life opportunities when they’re considering locating in Oklahoma, or deciding between communities in the state.
“Companies are always very interested in the facilities that are available, the available workforce and any incentives that might be offered, but they also want to know what quality-of-life opportunities are available for their people in that community,” Hackler said. “We get specific questions from companies about entertainment options, outdoor activities and parks, how they’re used and their condition, so it is a very important factor for companies.”
Hackler said companies place importance on the availability of quality-of-life facilities, because “happy workers are more productive workers.”
“Quality of life impacts your workforce,” Hackler said, “and companies know that if your workforce is happy and healthy, and they’re enjoying where they live, then they’re more productive for you.”
Hackler said companies still look first to see that a community can provide a workforce and the necessary infrastructure. After that, he said, quality of life could be the tie-breaker in how a business selects a community for expansion or relocation.
Kisling said the ability to offer quality-of-life amenities has become increasingly important in the competition to attract skilled workers and new businesses.
“It has become drastically more important,” Kisling said. “As close as 10 years ago, people were willing to move for a paycheck, but now you can’t attract someone with just a paycheck.”
He said workers are making relocation decisions based not just on competing compensation levels, but on communities’ ability to offer a “sense of place.”
“People are looking for a place to be, and a place to raise their family,” Kisling said. “We made a huge step forward in that regard when we passed the $100 million bond for our schools. That problem has been fixed, but we still don’t have the good quality parks and venues that a lot of other communities have.”
Kisling said Enid is falling farther behind regional competitors like Ponca City, Woodward and Stillwater in providing quality-of life-amenities.
“These are all communities we’re competing with on a regional level, and they’ve beaten us to the punch on quality-of-life issues,” Kisling said.
David Myers, executive director of the Ponca City Development Authority, said quality-of-life improvements have been made a priority in Ponca City’s economic development strategy.
He said by 2007, the city had an aging YMCA and deteriorating parks – a limiting factor in the community’s ability to attract new workers.
“We knew we were going to need to compete not just to recruit companies, but to recruit work force,” Myers said. “We are recruiting very highly talented, highly skilled people, and they have lots of choices about where they will locate.
“When they’re deciding between communities, they want shopping, but they also want quality of life, and that was an area we identified where we could make improvements fairly quickly, to make ourselves competitive on a national level.”
In 2007, Ponca City voters elected to fund those improvements, passing a half-cent sales tax to raise $25 million for quality-of-life investments. Ponca City has a population of about 25,000 people, making the $25 million sales tax issue, on a per-capita basis, roughly equal with the Quality of Life proposal in Enid.
The result was the Ponca City Aquatic and Family Center, a 72,000 square-foot facility with two indoor pools, multiple weight and exercise rooms, basketball courts and a child care center.
New softball, baseball and soccer fields, a one-mile walking trail, a new splash pad, a swimming beach at Lake Ponca and upgrades to existing parks also were funded from the $25 million.
Myers said the community already has seen a good return on its investment from the parks and recreation upgrades.
“It’s proven wildly successful, both from a community standpoint, and the quality of life of the people who live here, and also from an economic development standpoint,” Myers said.
He said the new aquatic and family center is “the first stop I make when we have someone visiting we’re trying to bring into this area.”
“They see that facility, and they know it’s something that’s going to help them recruit the work force they need,” Myers said. “The second thing we’ve found people are saying is ‘Wow, it’s really something that your community has stepped up to do this.’ It shows people that we have confidence in our own community, and that has paid us huge dividends.”
Myers said companies want to see that a community is investing in itself, including quality-of-life investments, before the company makes any investment in the community.
“It’s fundamental,” Myers said. “The fact of the matter is, it’s a prerequisite. When companies are looking at various areas, they’re not looking for an area where they’re going to have to go in there and become a community turnaround artist. They want to invest in communities that can fix themselves. They want to be a part of a winning team.”
Myers said a high quality of life is essential to creating the “winning team” atmosphere, both for residents and prospective investors. And without that, he said, it’s hard to attract anyone.
“If you go and tell a company to come into a community that isn’t investing in itself, you have zero chance of that company coming to your area.”