Public Space 

Budget cuts mean a decrease in park services.

The grass may be greener on the other side, but in a tough budget year, it's going to grow taller too — at least that will be the case in most city parks this spring and summer.

City budget cuts have reduced staffing by 17 positions at Memphis Park Services, and that equates to less regular maintenance and fewer park improvements at the city's 160 parks.

"The city of Memphis, just like businesses and families around the world, is dealing with the impacts of a major world recession," said Cindy Buchanan, director Memphis Park Services. "We're not able to provide the high level of service that we'd like to provide or used to provide."

Although she believes funding for parks will return as the economy improves, Buchanan said, for now, the city is making do. Over the last few months, a few private groups, such as the Overton Park Conservancy, have stepped up to help.

Before the recession, Buchanan said maintenance staff was able to mow parks every 18 days. Now that's been pushed to every 32 days.

With only one park planner on staff, the city is also turning to outside consulting firms for help designing park improvements. That's been the case with Charjean Park, an older city park located on Ketchum Road that Buchanan said is badly in need of new playground equipment and baseball field improvements. An outside firm is currently working on design for that park, and it should go out for bid this month.

"Now we're contracting projects out instead of doing them in-house. But the bottom line is, even with contractors, we can't do the same amount that we used to be able to do," Buchanan said.

Out of the city's 100 baseball fields, only 12 to 16 are being maintained, Buchanan said.

"We don't go out and line the fields or drag the dirt like you need to be done for league play. But the grass is still cut," Buchanan said.

Some citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Late last month, the Memphis City Council approved a contract with Tri-State Youth Baseball Academy to operate and manage a ball field at Jesse Turner Park. Tri-State is in the process of raising private dollars to re-sod the field, repair fencing and bleachers, and build a new baseball diamond for younger players.

"As a kid, I played baseball on that field, and it's never been in worse shape than it is today," said Tony James, chairman of Tri-State Baseball Academy.

If the project is successful, James said he hopes to work with the city on managing other poorly maintained parks throughout the city.

"Throughout the African-American community, every park is in horrible shape," James said. "If we're successful with this, we'll go back and ask for additional parks in order to provide these kids with something to do over the spring and summer months."

Last December, the council approved the Overton Park Conservancy to manage and operate Overton Park. The park will continue to receive funding from the city, but the conservancy can leverage private dollars to boost park projects.

"It's a very popular model to encourage private support of the parks, where cities have simply been unable to maintain the pace," said George Cates, interim executive director of the Overton Park Conservancy.

"The Overton Park Conservancy is building a dog park and replacing the playground. They have a number of projects that will improve things that are already there," Buchanan said. "And they will be able to maintain the grass more often than every 32 days."

Additionally, the city is drawing up a contract with an individual to take over three public golf courses: Davy Crockett, Pine Hill, and Riverside. Buchanan said that outsourcing management of those courses should save the city a half-million dollars each year.

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