Fairmount Park, the city’s 9,200-acre park system, is underutilized.
At least, that’s what members of the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commission said during a July 20 meeting at the Central branch of the Philadelphia Free Library on Vine Street.
Commissioners presented the results of a yearlong study that looked at generating revenues for the park system through bringing in concession amenities — things like restaurants, bike rentals, paddle boats, a family adventure area with games and golf as well as concerts and other events.
Concessions are “perhaps, the easiest way to generate additional revenues for the park system,” Matt Hill, a principal with Civic Futures and a member of the consulting team that put together the study, told the audience last week.
The study shows a wealth of untapped potential to generate revenue throughout the park system. In fact, there are currently fewer than 20 concessionaires in operation throughout the entire park system.
Through rent or percentage of income, these businesses currently contribute to about 10 to 15 percent of the park system’s total operating budget.
The hope is to raise that figure, as the study found comparable park systems in cities like New York, St. Louis and Minneapolis generate between 35 to 40 percent of their operating budgets.
The $45,000 study — paid for by the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commission and the Fairmount Park Conservancy — gathered information from parks representatives from 10 comparable cities across the country.
It also contains a list of the needs of concessionaires and the current hurdles that keep new concessions from coming to the park system.
“In all too many cases, the city was kind of an unfriendly place for a concessionaire,” said Pete Hoskins, a board member of the parks commission. “We want a modern system of amenities in our parks for our citizens to enjoy.”
Of the concerns, concessionaires reported that they need points of entry — simply finding out how to bring their service to the park system — and a need for a concessionaire advocate who could help explain “how and where to get started.”
This is something already under way; the parks commission has created a Property and Concession Management Division.
Also, potential concessionaires in the park system found the application process too complicated, with many city departments involved with what could be made a simple licensing process.
“Our idea was ‘how could we get the permitting bodies all in one room at the same time to create a one-stop permitting shop?’” asked Hill.
With this same idea, Hill said, concessionaires also asked for a revamped website to allow for an easier way to secure and apply for permits.
This is still in the works, Robert Allen, a member of the new Property and Concession Management Division, said.
Also, still to be determined is how funds raised through new concessions might be spent. Allen said revenue would go into the city’s general fund, but some sort of provisions would need to be in place to make sure the profits benefited the park.
A bill is currently circulating through City Council, he said, that would see the funds dedicated to the park system.
But, during the meeting, South Philly resident Lamar Reaves suggested the funding be used in communities closest to the large park system. He said this might have an added benefit of keeping the park safer, especially if the added revenues went to area schools or homeless programs.
“If we use that [money] for schools and for homeless shelters in the community, we can keep them [the homeless] out of the park,” he said.
Frances McDonald, a member of the advisory board of Sturgis Park in East Oak Lane, said she liked the idea of bringing in more concessions to create hubs of activity. For too long, she said, areas of Fairmount Park have gone underutilized and have become potentially unsafe.
“This is nice to hear, but without the police and community involvement, this is going to be interesting,” she said. “When I was growing up, we used to go over there to play tennis, and at one point, you’d have to bring your own net in there. Then it got to a point where it got so bad, you didn’t want to go out there at all.”
Nancy Goldberg, chair of the parks commission, agreed, noting that for the rest of this year, the commission will be looking at ways to improve safety throughout the city’s system of parks, playgrounds and recreation centers.
So far, Allen said, it’s too early to determine with certainty exactly what new concessions would be brought to the park system — though, he hinted that a restaurant could be brought to the banks of the reservoir in East Fairmount Park — but he hopes to see a significant increase in concessions throughout the park within the next year or two.
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org