A Minute With...

Robin Hall, expert on parks and recreation

5/1/2012  8:00 am

The Illinois Senate is considering a bill, already passed by the Illinois House, to begin charging admission fees at state-owned recreation areas, including Illinois’ 122 state parks. Robin Hall is the director of the U. of I. Office of Recreation and Park Resources, which works with state and local agencies on planning, operating and evaluating their parks and services. Hall has more than 35 years’ experience in community parks and recreation, including 33 years as the executive director of the Urbana Park District, and in leadership positions with statewide and national associations. Hall spoke with News Bureau writer Sharita Forrest about the challenges facing state and community park systems.

Charging user fees for state parks, is it a good idea? How is the park system funded now?

image of robin hallAbout 21 percent of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ funding comes from state General Revenue Funds, and that funding is what has taken the biggest cuts. Since 2002, the department has seen its budget cut almost in half – from $107 million to $48 million.

The IDNR workforce has been reduced from 2,600 to less than 1,200. Many positions are left vacant when employees leave or retire, so the employees who remain are having to do more with fewer resources. There’s a $700 million backlog of deferred maintenance projects at the state parks.  Without funding, those needs are just going to go unaddressed.

IDNR is looking at getting some sustainable funding that they can rely on from year to year. If they don’t get this legislation passed, more state parks will close, eliminating more services and employees.

IDNR also has responsibility for natural areas, for regulating mining, oil and gas production as well as the dams and levees; for protecting threatened/endangered species; and providing the conservation police.

Admission fees would be new to Illinois if the bill passes; are fees common in other states? How do other states fund their state park systems?

Illinois is one of only seven states that don’t charge park fees. Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin all charge fees. A few years ago, Missouri began allocating a small portion of state sales tax to funding its department of natural resources.

If, in fact, this bill passes, the Illinois Legislature needs to make sure that the money stays there, and that other sources of income aren’t taken away as a result.

Park districts are nearly unique to Illinois. In most states, parks and recreation are units within city government. Illinois has a multiplicity of special taxing districts, and park districts are among those. They provide a guaranteed source of income for funding parks and recreation, and it’s served very well. 

Illinois leads the nation in the number of Gold Medal Awards that various communities have won for the quality of the parks and recreation services they provide. Illinois can be very proud of its local park services. Illinois has some excellent city park and recreation departments. Bloomington and Normal would be some downstate examples.

What alternative sources of funding might there be for IDNR if the bill fails?

Two or three years ago, the state increased fees for hunting and fishing licenses. They can always look at those. In this financial climate, a tax increase just isn’t going to happen.

Probably 20 or so years ago, community parks worked with the Illinois Legislature to create the Open Space Land Acquisition and Development Fund. It uses a small portion of the state real estate tax as a funding source and is a 50/50 matching program. That has benefited community park systems all over the state. 

What are the key challenges for state parks and communities’ park districts right now?

Finances. And the political climate. 

Communities are facing the pressure to do more, or the same, with less. More people are staying home, doing the “staycation” because of the economy, and there are more programs for kids, such as day camps.

During the 1990s, many golf courses were built. The competition for players grew, but the number of players didn’t. Now golf has fallen off in popularity, and people’s finances are tight, so there are fewer players. But expenses – things like the costs of chemicals and utilities at the courses – keep increasing.

Some golf courses are shutting down. Decatur has gone from five public courses to three.

What are the trends? How has programming changed over the years?

With the Baby Boomers becoming a larger customer base, what we used to call “programs for seniors” have changed dramatically. When park districts first got into the senior market, there was maybe a senior center where people could go and play cards, maybe have a meal. Now seniors want to go on trips and are looking for a variety of different activities. That’s a whole component that’s changed a lot, and it makes for a much healthier component.

People are more aware now of the health benefits of community parks now, such as using the walking paths.

Getting kids outdoors playing is another challenge for parks now that kids’ activities are more organized, and parents are hesitant to send their kids out to play unsupervised sometimes.

The Champaign County Forest Preserve District is installing a natural playscape at Homer Lake, which is a playground that uses natural materials like streams, boulders and logs for kids to play on. That’s another trend in parks. 

Oftentimes, park districts and park and recreation departments are strong supporters and promoters of the arts, which have become much more popular. 

Parks provide environmental benefits and economic benefits for communities too. A number of studies have shown that properties near parks are worth more.  

I think that communities are coming to understand these benefits and almost expect them now.

What are some of the issues that communities or park districts are concerned about now?

We get calls in our office from smaller communities that are starting to grow and that want to know how they can offer the same services and activities as larger communities nearby. Oftentimes, it’s a question of money. 

One of the things we’d like to study is the issue of employee burnout. There seems to be a lot more of that now, and I’m not sure if it’s the environments that staff are working in, or if it’s because they’re being asked to do more with fewer resources. 

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