The Latest Testing Ground for Big-Time Parks Philanthropy: Reviving a "Crown Jewel"

Forget Central Park. St. Louis’s Forest Park is a hotspot of big donations, thanks to a bold and creative campaign to secure its status as a city treasure. The most recent boost comes from the family of the city’s famed aeronautics company.  

The story of Forest Park is actually similar to that of Central Park and other large urban green spaces—opened in the 19th century, it fell into disrepair amid the urban decay of the 70s and 80s. But since 1986, a nonprofit conservancy formed by a band of concerned residents has taken an increasing role in the park’s health, channeling ever-growing private donations and leveraging an unusual financing deal into restoration and new features. Sounds familiar, right?

The latest of these donations was announced last week—$20 million from James S. McDonnell III, his wife, Elizabeth Hall McDonnell, and the JSM Charitable Trust. The couple hail from the family behind the aviation giant McDonnell-Douglas, and the trust is a fund set up to match gifts from the family members.  

The McDonnells, and the James S. McDonnell Foundation founded by the patriarch in the 1950s, are best known for their support of science research, giving funds toward human cognition, brain cancer and the study of complex systems. James and Elizabeth McDonnell also gave a $25 million gift last year to the Genome Institute at Washington University. The McDonnells are sort of like the Annenbergs of St. Louis—their names are everywhere.  

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The donation comes on the heels of a $30 million gift in June from another prominent St. Louis figure, Jack C. Taylor, who founded Enterprise Rent-A-Car. This was the largest in the conservancy Forest Park Forever's history. These large donations don't come out of the blue, though, as Forest Park Forever has been orchestrating a series of major fundraising wins in recent decades.

Forest Park’s financial renaissance started in 1996, when the conservancy and the city teamed up on a master plan and a $100 million fundraising campaign that paid for the refurbishment of iconic elements in the sprawling park. 

Following the campaign, the park sprang back to life, but the conservancy wanted to ensure upkeep, continue repairs to roads and other infrastructure, and achieve financial stability for the future. City parks budgets all too often end up on the annual chopping block. 

Like most conservancies or “friends of” groups, Forest Park Forever is not a public agency, but a private nonprofit that works closely with the city to support a publicly owned park. But over time, such groups have taken large roles, building endowments and rounding up private funding to do what the city can’t or won't. In many ways, these groups are a godsend, but their power also raises troubling questions about who really controls shared civic spaces in some of America's largest cities. 

Related: The New Golden Age of Urban Parks Philanthropy (And Its Controversies)

In 2013, Forest Park Forever and St. Louis entered a kind of fascinating partnership in which the conservancy uses private donations to purchase from $30 million in set aside city bonds. The city sells the bonds as needed to pay for upgrades mutually agreed upon, then pays the conservancy back over time with concessions and sales tax money, with interest, that goes back into the conservancy. 

It's a little confusing, but basically a private conservancy is loaning the city money it raises from donations to pay for upkeep of the city park, and putting the city's repayment back into that park.

Meanwhile, Forest Park Forever cranked its fundraising into overdrive with the goal of raising $100 million for its own endowment, which will eventually fund long-term upkeep. Led by Executive Director Lesley Hoffarth, the conservancy expanded its development and communications staff around this time and continues to bring in serious gifts and funds from annual events. 

Forest Park is a remarkable place that rivals any large urban park, with 1,300 acres, 13 million annual visitors, and several historic architectural features and cultural assets. It is also a massive piece of land to maintain.

Philanthropic entities and the private donors that fuel them are becoming essential to the success of such parks. In the case of the arrangement in St. Louis, they've almost fused together the public agency and the private entity to create something that's not quite either, but locks in ongoing funds from both taxes and donations.