When park lovers meet, what do they talk about?

Want to feel good about the future of Dallas parks? Try getting together with a group of enthusiasts who are willing to rise early on a Saturday morning to attend the recent Love Your Parks Summit.

I expected a replay of earlier town hall meetings, when Mayor Tom Leppert and city councilmen attempted to explain budget difficulties to skeptical constituents. Back then, the mayor was still hoping to avoid raising taxes. Partly due to the passion expressed by park users, no Dallas recreation centers were closed this fiscal year — but the matter was resolved only after a struggle between the mayor and some councilmen over a tax hike.

The mayor lost. Given the recent strife, what might happen at a Love Your Parks Summit?

How about a breath of fresh air?

With budget wrangling over, politicians and park lovers were free to talk about their visions for green space in Dallas.

“If you haven’t noticed, we’re short on oceans and mountains here,” Leppert said in his opening speech.

Does that mean the people of Dallas care less about outdoor recreation than the people of Los Angeles or Chicago? No, according to the mayor: “It means our green space is even more important.”

(At this point I pinched myself, and wondered if he had been reading my diary, or possibly my mind.)

After remarks by park board visionaries, attendees broke into groups to discuss local issues. Joan Walne, our neighborhood’s representative on the Dallas Park Board, reported that the Lake Highlands North Recreation Center is scheduled to reopen after renovations in spring 2011 (possibly April). Also on the drawing board are plans to renovate the Willie B. Johnson Recreation Center in Hamilton Park near Forest and Central. Recent city budget cuts shortened the rec center’s hours, and Carolyn Matthews of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a national advocacy group that provides assistance to local communities, noted the problems this creates for various groups of elderly and youth, who have conflicting needs and schedules.

Our neighborhood’s city councilman, Jerry Allen, mentioned that despite the city’s high population density north of LBJ, there is no recreation facility there.  In fact, he said, there is “hardly a blade of grass.” The city has money for land acquisition, but no land.

“The best shot,” Allen said, “would be to buy a multi-family building” when the opportunity becomes available.

Dick White, president of the Lake Highlands Soccer Association, brought up his concern about erosion control at Moss Park. Although District 10 residents avidly use the soccer fields (visible from Greenville Avenue), the park is located in District 9. In the recent past, $800,000 had been allocated to fix the problem, but at the last minute the money was pulled for another use (allegedly, potholes). Since then 20 feet of buffer to the creek drop-off has been lost, which has forced an adjustment in the location of the fields. Walne responded that she would address the problem with Ken Pyland, project manager at the Park Department.

Marc Mumby of bikedfw.org pointed out that every time it rains, the White Rock bike trail floods, creating conditions that are slick, dangerous and muddy. The city has been doing a better job cleaning up mud after rain, but what’s really needed are renovations such as widening the trail and providing better drainage. Trail enthusiasts discussed the possibility of starting a “Friends” group to support the White Rock trail.

So what comes first, the green space or the funding? Leppert envisions a scenario where corporate sponsorships and/or “Friends” groups would provide more security for green space in Dallas. But would voluntary sponsorships really be more reliable than the tax base?

Still, the summit provided a chance for park advocates to learn that our politicians don’t really have hearts of stone. City leaders demonstrated that they understand green space is necessary not only because it feels good, but also because it raises property values and helps attract new businesses when they are looking to relocate.