Monday, March 19, 2012

Entrepreneurial Parks & Rec.

In an era of smaller government, the field of parks and recreation has needed to find ways to offer open space and programs to the public to improve quality of life, and do it in a cost effective way. In the field it is often called "cost recovery" but what it really is could be called the "entrepreneurial way." Above is a chart of the percentage of the annual operating budget that different park agencies in Northern Virginia and nationally recover through enterprise (non-tax dollars) operations.

This enterprising approach to parks and recreation is taught at the NRPA Revenue Development & Management School at Oglebay. After 46 years this is the oldest and most prestigious professional development schools in the field. For the last few years I have had the honor of teaching at this school that brings business skills to park and recreation officials.

Today I spoke with Darrell Winslow who was the Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority for several pivotal decades. He was in the first class of this school in 1966 and served as one of the Regents (teachers) after that. Darrell helped move NVRPA from an agency that was mostly taxpayer supported to one that was mostly enterprise supported. Due to the facilities he built and the enterprising culture that he fostered, NVRPA has continued to be a leader in this area. From fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2013 (budget) we have gone from 80% self sufficient for operations to 83%.

Below is a link to a short video that features some of the year 2 students of the school presenting a business plan for a new facility to a mock City Council.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Upton Hill Batting Cages

At over 93,000 rounds per year, the batting cages at Upton Hills Regional Park in Arlington Virginia is one of the most popular batting sites in the region. To keep pace with this high use, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has just installed new machines. In addition to the new machines a "fast pitch - baseball" cage has been switched to make for an additional softball cage. This change reconfigures the facility to better meet the needs of most of the users.

Upton Hills is also the site of Ocean Dunes Waterpark and one of the most popular min-golf facilities in the region. The mini-golf which is one of the best in Northern Virginia is payed more than 21,000 times a year.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Strategic Plan Success

The nomination for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) Gold Metal asked for a summary of your agency's Strategic Plan progress. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority adopted its current 5 year plan in December of 2007. This document has been the guiding force behind most of our efforts since then. It is widely viewed as an extremely successful Strategic Plan. Below is a very condensed summary of our results.

Currently NVRPA is working on developing a new Strategic Plan to lead us for the next five years.

In 2007, NVRPA adopted an ambitous and visionary 5 year Strategic Plan. In developing this plan, a park needs study was conducted by Leisure Vision. This survey of park needs was done in partnership with several of the six local governments that are member jurisdictions.

Goal One: Increase, Maintain and Enhance Conservation of Natural, Cultural and Historic Resources.

We have added 461 acres of new parkland since 2007:

• 88 acres – Mosby Run Property purchased in 2008

• 66 acres – PEC property at Gilbert’s Corner leased in 2008

• 7 acres – Mt. Zion Historic Park acquired in 2009

• 1 acre – Knipling Property at Pohick Bay donated in 2009

• 295 acres – White's Ford Property purchased in 2010

• 4 acres – Along the W&OD Trail between 2007 - 2011

Three new trail connections have been created to support the plan goals.

55% of our park management staff have received additional training in natural resource management in the last 5 years.

Goal Two: Expand and Improve Recreational Facilities to Meet Northern Virginia’s Population Needs. Expand and adapt current facilities to better meet the needs of our diverse population.

We have renovated and themed all 5 of our waterparks, resulting in doubling and sometime tripling the annual attendance of these facilties. Numerous other park facilities have been rennovated or repurposed to better serve the population. A policy was adopted to invest at least 25% of end-of-year net revenues into capital maintenance for further improvements, resulting in over $2 million in new capital.

Goal Three: Enhance and Expand Opportunities for Cultural and Environmental Interpretation and Education.

Every park is now a place of learning. 5 of our parks have SOL based educational programs. We implemented an innovative Roving Naturalist Program and expanded nature summer camps. We created a one-of-a-kind energy focused Nature Center and played a leading role in the region in commemorating the American Civil War.

Goal Four: Develop Mechanisms for Sustainable Financing.

Over the last five years, we have added over $3 million in new enterprise revenues, an increase of over 30%. This far exceeds our stated goal of having enterprise revenues expand at least 2% above the inflation rate.

Goal Five: Increase Public Awareness and Recognition of NVRPA’s role in the Region.

Over the last five years, our annual investment in marketing has increased by 400%. We have gone from a very passive government model of providing public information for those who seek it out, to marketing our facilities like a private business would.

Goal Six: Provide Exceptional Leadership for NVRPA.

The hallmarks of these efforts include development and implementation of the strategic plan as the central guiding document of the organization, employee achievement awards and volunteer recognition.

Effectiveness & Efficiency

One of the questions of the nomination for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) Gold Metal was one that got to the effectiveness and efficency of your agency. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority is one of the most entreprenurial park agencies in the nation generating 83% of its operating revenues through enterprise operations.

Effectiveness = do the actions meet the needs?

NVRPA contracted with Leisure Vision ETC to survey the public on a wide range of park and recreation issues. 71% of households had used parks in the last year, and 93% of those had a good/excellent experience. More importantly to NVRPA as a Regional Park District is that walking/biking trails, large regional parks, historic sites and nature areas and centers were four of the top five community priorities. These are all areas where NVRPA plays a leadership role in the region. The alignment of top public needs and NVRPA’s offerings are a measure of effectiveness in meeting the public’s needs.

Efficiency = are the actions being done well?

NVRPA is one of the most efficient park agencies in the nation. In 2007, the Better Government Competition presented to NVRPA an award for “Entrepreneurial Service Delivery.” From actual 2005 to budget 2013, the level of revenue recovery (self funding) has gone from 80 – 83%. In that same time period, NVRPA salaries as a percentage of operating costs have gone from 54.9 – 49.2%. These are both critical measures of efficiency.

One of the secrets of NVRPA’s success is an organizational culture that embraces innovation and constant improvement. As a result of this, continual evaluation and improvement are built into many segments of the operations. Management committees for golf courses and water parks meet regularly to share best practices in those fields. After major seasonal events like the fall corn maze at Temple Hall Farm Park and the winter holiday light show at Bull Run Regional Park, there is an after action review to evaluate every element of the operations and come up with areas of improvement for the following year. This year, the staff responsible for the light show toured similar light show operations run by the Charleston County Park District in South Carolina to share information with the intent of improving both shows through best practices.

An example of a few of the planned improvments to the light show that came from this year's review and vist to Charleston include:

• To improve the efficiency of the show setup process from a staff training standpoint, we will designate the major aspects of setup to the same group of staff or same park each year.

• Addition of a Family Fun Walk/Run as a soft opening and preview to the show

• Reconfigure Santa’s Village so it is more visible and noticeable to encourage more participation (i.e set up the Village so people have to walk through to get to the carnival or incorporate the Village and the carnival areas together).

The efficiency of operations is communicated to the public by featuring these themes prominently in NVRPA’s budget documents and posts focusing on efficiency on the Executive Director’s blo

Environmental & Cultural Stewardship

One of the questions in the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) Gold Metal nomination was on your efforts in the area of natural and cultural stewardship. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority has had a central conservation/preservation mission for over 50 years. Here again, there are too many things to list in the limited space provided for this nomination, but here are some highlihts.

Reducing Carbon Footprint

Starting in 2005, NVRPA took a leadership role in reducing its carbon footprint. It is the first independent park agency to sign on to the Cool Cities/Cool Counties Initiative, aimed at tracking and reducing consumption of fossil fuels. Using accounting software, the Finance Department started tracking units of fuel consumption for every facility by fuel type. This information is provided with same month previous year data to all facility managers on a regular basis. Every facility developed a site specific energy conservation plan, and every year the facility that has reduced its energy consumption by the greatest percentage is awarded a prize. This initiative has led to the early adoption of electric utility vehicles in 5 parks, hybrid vehicles, geothermal heat pumps, photovoltaic solar power generation and the development of a LEED certified building. In the January 2008 issue of Park & Recreation Magazine, this program was featured in an article called “Cool Parks.”

electric vehicles

Energy Education

In 2009, NVRPA conducted a major renovation of its nature center at Potomac Overlook Regional Park and created a first of its kind energy conservation focused nature center called the “Energerium.” This unique facility is visited by thousands of school children every year who learn about where our different sources of energy come from and how people and natural systems use energy. Part of the interpretive messages includes information about NVRPA’s energy conservation efforts.

Pesticides and Fertilizers

In 2008, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority became the first public park agency in the mid-Atlantic region to complete the multi-year process of certifying its golf courses (all 3) as Audubon International Wildlife Sanctuaries. Embracing the high standards that this certification required in the areas of pesticides and fertilizer use, led NVRPA to work with officials from EPA and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to develop an agency-wide policy on the use of these chemicals that far exceeds any legal requirement and established a new model for environmental management.

Environmental and Cultural Interpretation

As part of NVRPA's 2007-2012 Strategic Plan, every park became a site of learning. This meant adding interpretive displays and programming at sites that previously were focused on more recreational offerings. The interpretive messages are generally either environmental or historical. To expand environmental programming in a cost effective way, a roving naturalist initiative was developed, where a naturalist provided programming at a range of sites that did not have their own interpretive staff.


Part of the National Park and Recreation Association (NRPA) Gold Metal Nomination that we recently submitted was a question asking for example of how some challenges have been addressed using partnerships. The Regional Park Authority is an organization founded on a partnership principal, and we have far too many to list them all. Below are two that we highlighted for this nomination:

Hemlock Overlook Regional Park:

For 23 years, NVRPA had partnered with George Mason University to operate a ropes course, environmental education and team building center at a 400 acre property called Hemlock Overlook Regional Park. In 2009, George Mason University withdrew from the partnership. Fifth and sixth grade field trips to Hemlock had become a right of passage for thousands of children in Northern Virginia, and the prospect of Hemlock closing created a tidal wave of messages to NVRPA and elected officials, urging a solution that would keep this unique and valued facility open.

NVRPA used a relatively new procurement process set up to create public/private partnerships and after many months of process and negotiations, selected a private firm with an excellent background in experiential learning called Adventure Links to operate Hemlock under agreement with NVRPA.

Blythe Russian, Superintendent of Operations with NVRPA, took the leadership role in shepherding this complicated process and communicating with all the stakeholders involved. On July 9, 2009, NVRPA hosted a community meeting with elected officials, neighbors, the media, and other interested parties to introduce Adventure Links and answer questions about future operations.

In the end, this partnership resulted in expanded programming and expanded revenue for NVRPA and, at the same time it satisfied the needs of area schools, elected officials and neighbors.

Mt. Zion/Gilbert’s Corner Regional Parks:

In 2009, NVRPA was approached by the Loudoun County government. They were concerned that an 88 acre tract of land in an area called Gilbert’s Corner that was owned by a local non-profit was going to be sold for development, since the non-profit could not make the loan payments on the land. The loan had come from the Commonwealth of Virginia, and they too were concerned that they would soon need to foreclose on the property.

Loudoun County had recently finished a million dollar restoration on a historic site they owned across the road form the distressed property. This historic site called Mt. Zion Historic Church had many notable roles in the Civil War. At that time, Loudoun County did not have the capital funds to buy the distressed property or the operational funds to operate the freshly restored historic site.

NVRPA was able to structure a creative three way deal. The Authority took ownership of the distressed property, saving the state and the non-profit from the foreclosure process. Loudoun County gave the Authority the restored Mt. Zion historic site, which the Authority was able to manage with staff from another nearby historic site. And finally, NVRPA was able to lease 66 acres of adjacent land. The end result was a new 161 acre park, at a bargain sale value.

Loudoun County Attorney Jack Roberts, NVRPA Planning and Development Director Todd Hafner and Executive Director Paul Gilbert, all played leadership roles in facilitating this creative multi-party deal that created new parks for the public.