In cities across America, it seems the primary purpose of public parks is to give a broad spectrum of the population a space where they can enjoy being in a pleasing outdoor environment either alone or together. Different parks have different amenities and depending upon the attractions, park users can vary. For the most part, those attracted to using parks seems to be either those who live in apartments or other limited space where there is little yard space, or those looking for open spaces that have recreational development. Park users tend to come from every segment of society: people with young children, joggers and bicyclists, and retired people who simply enjoy nice weather and attractive surroundings.
Unfortunately, parks never seem to make the "must have" list of core services for governments. When times are tough and public funds are short, you can expect parks to come out on the short end of the stick. We've seen this in Tulsa. We've seen parks closed, recreation centers abandoned, and programs cancelled. This is due to either lack of funds, lack of use, or both. When the public officials decide to repurpose the park due to lack of use, people scream from high heaven that "their" park is being closed. But where were these voices during the parks decline? Why did those who complain now quit using the parks in the first place? Why did they continue to drive by a neglected park and do nothing?
Tulsa has multiple park systems. Tulsa County has one. The City of Tulsa has one. The River Parks Authority has one. Each is unique, and yet each has common features, as well. Makes one wonder if there isn't a way to merge our parks into a true public/private partnership where our resources and assets can be better allocated, shared, and directed to the long-term sustainability of all our park facilities.
The greatest asset for the park systems in Tulsa is the support from private citizens and private organizations. And it's not just financial support. Longtime Tulsans will recall that the late Walt Helmerich was on the Tulsa Park and Recreation Board for many, many years contributing not only his money but his time. The same can be said of Bob and Buddy LaFortune and many of Tulsa's finest citizens.
The month of June 2013 may go down as the single best month for parks across Tulsa County thanks to those Tulsa leaders who not only believe parks are important, but that they should not be left out or left behind.
The month began with the announcement by Tulsa County Commissioner Fred Perry and Tulsa County Park Director Richard Bales that they had reached their matching goal of $1 million dollars which allowed them to receive the $1 million dollar matching gift from Mr. and Mrs. Mike Case for the LaFortune Park tennis facilities. During the recognition ceremony, Mr. Case succinctly said that he did not believe that children and young adults should have to belong to a country club or come from a wealthy family in order to enjoy the sport of tennis. Rather, it was the responsibility of both the public and private leaders to partner together to provide something as enjoyable as tennis to anyone who wants to participate. Now, for generations to come, LaFortune Park will have one of the best public tennis facilities in the entire state of Oklahoma, thanks to the leadership of Commissioner Perry and the generosity of many Tulsans and Mr. and Mrs. Case.
Melissa and Dave McCorkle
The month of June ended with the highly anticipated announcement of the Gathering Place, a tremendous park, cultural, and recreation development estimated to cost between $100 to $200 million covering almost 60 acres led by the George Kaiser Family Foundation (GKFF).
The Gathering Place project is a successful example of what it takes to do something big and do it right. Over the past several years, the community engagement yielded over 1,400 individual ideas. Following several more years of development and searching for just the right landscape architecture firm, the world-renowned firm of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates was selected.
At the unveiling of the plans before 700 excited Tulsans, George Kaiser stated simply this may not be entirely consistent with the foundations primary mission of intervening in the cycle of poverty; it is related because it focuses on young children -- their major mission. In the end, that's what this project and all such park improvement projects are really about: the growth and happiness of children. That no matter where they come from or where they are headed, no child should be denied a happy and healthy childhood. And park facilities can provide so much of that.
When cities and counties have to prioritize the spending of their limited resources, the decisions are often driven by statistics and data. Crime statistics, traffic counts, fire calls, and the number of citizen complaints all drive financial decisions and priorities. But there is no statistic called "happiness-denied moments" or "number of happy opportunities missed." And yet that's what's lost when we can't provide urban park facilities for children.
Fortunately for Tulsa, we have leaders like Mike Case, Bob and Buddy La Fortune, the late Walt Helmerich, and George Kaiser who have never forgotten what its like and what it takes to make children happy.
Instead of building skyscrapers, they are more interested in building playgrounds, tennis courts, gardens, and museums. For all of their personal successes, they know that the most successful contribution they can make is to contribute to the happy life of a child, especially children who may have few opportunities.
For adults, these parks may simply look like another playground. But in the eyes of a child, it will be a lifetime of memories thanks to the Kings of Parks.
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