In terms of conservation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is mostly known for its work to protect the Great Lakes and surrounding region. But as part of the funder’s dedication to its home of Flint, Michigan, Mott has also provided a huge lifeline to the county’s financially beleaguered park system.
The foundation has long supported the parks in the county it calls home, but has significantly stepped up its donations in recent years as the parks commission has faced huge budget shortfalls. Mott has given grants totaling $22.55 million related to Genesee County Parks & Recreation system since 1965, $8 million of which has been granted since just 2009.
In 2010, in the depths of the recession, Mott made a $1.27 million grant to keep the park system on its feet, and since then has made annual grants in that ballpark—the largest single grant being $1.8 million in October, but reaching a combined total of just over $2 million in 2011. That’s around 20 percent of its total annual budget.
Genesee County Parks & Recreation has been in desperate need of the funding, with Mott almost solely bridging some huge funding gaps. In 2013, for example, had the grant not come through, the commission was facing a $2.1 million budget deficit.
Genesee County’s seat is Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, which experienced a well-documented economic decline after the company closed several auto plants in the 1980s. The park system is supported by property taxes, and as property values in the county shrunk during the recession, so did the parks’ funding.
Lacking a stable funding mechanism is not a problem unique to Genesee County, perhaps most notably demonstrated by California’s state park system, which is perpetually facing closures, deficits, maintenance shortfalls, and mismanagement scandals. Such struggles are common, despite strong evidence of the economic value a robust park system pumps into local economies.
The Genesee Parks & Recreation Commission and Mott cited a $16 million economic benefit in 2012. The system draws about half a million annual visitors to its 21 parks, which include playgrounds and picnic sites, an arboretum and a nature preserve, along with several other recreational offerings and community programs.
With arrangements like we’re seeing with Mott and Genesee (and California on a larger scale) it calls into question the long-term relationship between public structures like parks and private philanthropy. Can a park system continue to survive simply by fortunate existence of a large local funder? Is such a setup sustainable?
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