“Give me a reason to live here.”
This simple statement carries a lot of weight, even if subconsciously in the minds of prospective residents of a community. Nearly every municipality encourages young prosperous families to move in. This brings in a good tax base on several levels; earned income tax, property tax, and additional users of public utilities. I am reminded of when I relocated and began to make improvements to my home. The neighbor came over and said, “keep it up young fella; you’re making my home more valuable too.” He was absolutely right. A good neighborhood isn't made up of just one nice home; it is a collection of families and businesses that can make it attractive to others. It is not unusual for some underlying competition to occur amongst neighbors as well. You may remember the old adage “keeping up with the Jones’s,” where one likes to try and outdo the other. This is a good thing for blossoming neighborhoods.
There are other factors that encourage good families to relocate. Obviously, there have to be jobs available. You can’t afford a house if you don’t have a job – pretty straight forward. Next may be related to the proximity to health care; older residents find this to be of high importance. And some find the convenience of shopping high on their priority list, too. However, I feel one thing ranks just as high as those already mentioned, and maybe even higher – parks and recreational activities.
Parks and recreation attract people to the community. The availability of hike/biking trails, playgrounds, sports fields, natural areas, etc., are amenities that catch the attention of would-be homebuyers. Don't limit yourself to just summertime activities, either. If you have the ability to promote cross-country skiing, fat tire biking, sled riding, snowshoeing and ice skating, you can really make your area a year-round playground. Today's families are looking for these activities, and if access is provided free in a public setting, even better. After all, that’s what part of paying taxes is all about. You want something for your money.
When I took over as manager in my township, the park system was very small. One area was about a hundred yards square with a tiny pavilion and some kiddie toys to play on. Another park was located between two busy roads and was the site of a house that had been torn down, and was now just a grassy area. Another was a leased area that had a swing set on it, but this was actually a ploy by the landowner to get free grass cutting of his extended lawn. Hardly anyone ever used it. The hidden gem was the area at the head of the lake that was once a proposed subdivision, but which never came to fruition due to environmental regulations. To the untrained eye, it was just a swampy area with a grassy field in the middle. To the nature lover, it was paradise, with flora and fauna in great abundance.
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Like any municipal project, it takes money to get things happening. Fortunately, my township was a CDBG entitlement community and to honest, we had a difficult time finding projects that met the low to moderate-income guidelines required for expenditures. An income survey of the target area at the head of the lake proved to be well worth the effort. A sizeable chunk of that year's allotment went into the construction of a playground, two pavilions, an ADA accessible fishing dock and the paving of the roadway to the park. The pavilions were erected by a local group of retired Navy Seabee’s, and the township crew installed the other items. By issuing press releases and letting the public know that you’re trying to make improvements but need some assistance beyond just money, you can accomplish great things. In another one of our parks, we were able to get a crew from the nearby women’s state prison to build pavilions and a dry stack brick wall, which was donated by a local landscape supply house.
We used funds provided by the Pa. Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to purchase a tract of land that was once a cornfield. Now it has a paved walking path, volleyball court, horseshoe pit, basketball court, two pavilions, and an amphitheater. This 18-acre site really got the community excited about the possibilities for recreation in the area. Mind you, this a rural area with aging farms, etc., and many wondered why we would even need such a thing, but the influx of families proved their value.
The amphitheater was an interesting project. Nothing like this existed in the community, but again money is always the deciding factor. While driving through the middle of Pennsylvania one weekend, I noticed a park amphitheater that, to me, resembled a grain silo cap you’d commonly sea on a farm. I would stare out of the township building at the neighbor's silo and wonder if it was possible to take half of a silo cap for this project.
So I spoke with a local farmer about my idea. After he got done laughing, he gave me a contact for a company in Lancaster County that makes silo caps. I explained what I wanted and asked if anything resembling a scratch-and-dent sale was possible. Much to my surprise, the salesman said that a cap they had built had a custom opening in it made specifically for a farm but wasn’t built as-designed. He could sell me the good half if I was interested. He was quick to say that they wouldn’t warrant this as it wasn’t for the standard use they were designed for. I had no problem with that restriction, as I had an employee who was a good fabricator and had the utmost confidence that he could make it work. We poured a concrete pad and bolted this half cap down to it. It was placed at the bottom of a sloping area and large concrete blocks were set strategically on the bank to allow for seating and/or picnicking during entertainment events. I am pretty sure I was thinking way outside the box that day.
The landowner who sold this property to us was so impressed that a few years later he came into the office in late November and said, “if you can close on the property before December 31, I'll give the neighboring 70 acres to add to the park system." It contained a beautiful pond and trails with a huge open field. We immediately went to work on this new addition and received a nice grant from the local gaming authority to make improvements. This area has huge potential and will grow in the years to come, I am sure. A little ingenuity, kindness, and frankly some plain ole good luck has provided boundless recreational activities for this college town and it has a bright future if all goes well.
Sure, I want to live and play here. And now, we’ve given those prospective residents lots of reasons to do the same. So, let’s “fire this thing up!” We're gonna build a park today.
About the Author
David L. Anthony is a member of the Keystone Municipal Solutions team of experts. He is a veteran of municipal government, having served more than 32 years in various positions of public service. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about David and the Keystone Municipal Solutions team, click here.