DAWN OF A NEW ERA:
Park officials hope that a new concessions strategy can revive the relationship between parks and neighborhoods
By Bill Hangley, Jr. print this article
If you think you’re seeing an uptick in the number of concessionaires in Philadelphia’s parks, you’re not mistaken.
The new food trucks and bike rental kiosks popping up in and around Center City are part of an emerging concessions strategy developed by the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department, in which officials hope to develop clusters of concessions and amenities concentrated around the park’s major entry points, or “gateways.” The goal is to bring life to parks and the neighborhoods around them, and generate revenue that can go back to the parks themselves.
All this, officials hope, will help make Fairmount Park more engaging and accessible, bring in much-needed cash, and spur new partnerships with foundations and community organizations – particularly where projects around the “gateways” themselves are concerned.
In the short term, park officials are less interested in specific revenue targets than with attracting park visitors and creating a better experience. “There’s not a huge amount of money to be made from a food vending truck in the park,” said Bob Allen, head of concessions management at the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department (PPR). “Our goal is to provide the amenity to park users, so that they can get something to drink, food, and reason to stay – just make it more interesting overall.”
But in the long term, officials see a successful concessions policy as a key part of the parks’ fiscal future. Park officials say they’re working to be more creative and responsive to concessionaires’ needs and park users’ interests, and talks are underway concerning a possibly increased role for the nonprofit Fairmount Park Conservancy, which could help develop and promote concessions opportunities.
“Concessions don’t work unless the concessionaire makes money. If they make money, we make money. We make money, we invest in the park,” said Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis, head of PPR
CONCESSIONS AND REVENUE PLANS: LONG IN THE MAKING
It’s been over six years since a strategic plan authored by consultant Leon Younger suggested that Fairmount Park could earn as much as 40 percent of its budget from concessions and fees. Since then, the park system has gone through a major reorganization and consolidation. Last year, park officials asked a pair of local consulting firms to assess the obstacles to effective concessions projects, and recommend steps forward.
The resulting report, completed in July 2011 by Moussa Consulting and Civic Futures, concluded that the park is rich with concessions opportunities that could substantially improve park users’ experience, such as adventure sports in its wooded ravines, paddle boats in West Fairmount Park’s lakes, and family attractions around the Please Touch Museum. The report, titled “Generating Future Revenues through Concessions in Fairmount Park,” recommended concentrating concessions around the so-called “gateways” - existing gathering points where parking, rest rooms, signage and other amenities are, or could be, available.
Properly managed, the report said, concessions could generate enough revenue to cover as much as 15 percent of the park’s budget. But to realize this kind of long-term success, the report called for a complete overhaul of the concessions management process, recommending that it be either “streamlined” or “outsourced” to a high-capacity nonprofit.
Among other things, the report recommended that the park’s various stakeholders create a new position, a “concessions facilitator,” to help concessionaires navigate the city’s often-baffling legal and political labyrinth.
Park officials say they’ve embraced most of the study’s big ideas, including the “gateway” strategy. “I was very pleased with both the process suggestions, as well as some of the big concepts,” said DiBerardinis. The gateway strategy “focuses the work where it can be initially most successful,” he said. “You’re looking where the foot traffic is, where people gather, and you build on that.”
THE SHORT TERM: BITES AND BIKES
DiBerardinis and Allen say that PPR has already taken many of the recommendations in the Moussa/Civic Futures report to heart, and that they’re looking for creative ways to put the right concessions in the right places. Food trucks are one example, and Allen said that the newly licensed fleet at Love Park near City Hall – fifteen different trucks in all, which rotate through Love Park’s limited number of parking spaces – has been a big success: long lines of satisfied customers, and “no bad things at all – no uptick in trash or anything like that.”
In addition, Allen said, PPR’s experiment with bike rentals has gone well and is set to expand. A newly-minted long-term contract allowed California’s Wheel Fun Rentals to open for business this summer near Kelly Drive’s Lloyd Hall, and the concessionaire has since added new rental sites at the Trolley Barn in East Falls and the Cedars House in the Wissahickon Valley.
Allen said that so far, the Wheel Fun deal, under which a portion of revenue goes directly back to the park system, has netted PPR about $45,000, some of which is targeted for trail improvements and fence repairs along Kelly Drive.
Wheel Fun’s president, Al Stonehouse, praised the city for its dealmaking flexibility and creativity. “We’re very pleased with the responsiveness, with the can-do approach,” said Stonehouse, whose company rents bikes in about 35 parks nationwide. “It’s something that we don’t see in very many park systems.”
Stonehouse said the city’s willingness to learn from past mistakes has made it a more appealing partner; several years ago, he declined to bid on a Fairmount Park bike rental proposal that he called “too restrictive” to be profitable. He and other concessionaires were interviewed about their experience for the Moussa/Civic Futures study, and this time around, the city responded with a more flexible proposal that allowed Stonehouse to weigh in on locations. It also offered a long-term contract (in this case, five years with a five-year renewal option) that gives Wheel Fun the incentive to invest in kiosks, secure storage, and other capital needs.
The summer’s other substantial project was the opening of a new, long-term golf concession in Northeast Philadelphia’s Burholme Park. Owners invested $500,000 in driving ranges, batting cages, a new café and mini-golf, and plan to open a family-style restaurant. “That’s been a big success,” Allen said.
THE LONG TERM: “WHO DOES WHAT?”
Park officials and stakeholders agree that while PPR is making important short-term progress, a successful long-term concessions strategy will require coordinated efforts of several organizations, including PPR, the Parks and Recreation Commission, the Conservancy and the Fairmount Park Historic Preservation Trust.
Nancy Goldenberg, chair of the Commission on Parks and Recreation and a Conservancy board member, said that while many decisions about managing long-term strategy are yet to come, the “conversation” about them is ongoing.
“We all came out of that [Moussa/Civic Futures] study agreeing that there are major issues that need to be resolved. And we all share the vision that there are gateways to the park, and [ways] that consumers could be better served,” Goldenberg said. “The question is, who does what? What is the business model? We don’t want to do this willy-nilly: ‘We’ve got thirty-five gateways, let’s put something in each.’”
The head of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Kathryn Ott Lovell, said the nonprofit is anxious to play a larger role developing concessions. “I want us to be the sales force. I want us to be out there soliciting new concessions,” said Ott Lovell. “The park’s role should be managing the day-to-day operations …. I want [the Conservancy] to be … proactively selling, developing the business and enterprise opportunities for the park.”
Ott Lovell said she’s made the case to DiBerardinis that the whole concessions system could follow the model developed at the Horticultural Center in West Fairmount Park, where the Conservancy worked “in lockstep” with park officials to help develop a food-service concession concept and select restaurateur Stephen Starr as the Center’s in-house caterer. The Conservancy now helps promote and manage Starr’s concession, in exchange for a management fee.
Pete Hoskins, a former commissioner and chair of its Revenue Enhancement Committee, agrees the Conservancy could play a bigger concessions-management role – a model employed successfully in other cities. “We think it would be very helpful for the city to see the Conservancy as not just a fundraising arm, but a vehicle to manage entrepreneurial activity,” he said.
DiBerardinis, while not speaking directly to the Conservancy’s proposed role, thinks his department could benefit from certain kinds of partnerships. “Attract[ing] and connect[ing] people around concessions seems to me to be where the action is. That collaboration … feels like it has immense potential,” he said.
DiBerardinis and Ott Lovell agree that any formal “facilitator” - that is, someone tasked with shepherding contracts through the city’s many layers of process - should be a departmental, not Conservancy, employee. “I don’t think an external person could have the standing to be effective in that role,” said DiBerardinis. “Could I be convinced [otherwise]? Maybe.”
Despite uncertainty about any future collaborations, DiBerardinis said that the department needs no new legislation from City Council or any new legal powers to develop new concessions. Among other things, he said, PPR and city officials have successfully created a policy under which PPR can retain a portion of its concessions revenue, rather than passing every dollar back to the city’s General Fund.
“That’s a very important benchmark in advancing concessions in the park. We’ve come a long way,” DeBerardinis said. “It really cleared up some nagging questions.”
According to Allen, each concessions deal will have its own unique financial arrangement, worked out in consultation with park and community stakeholders. Typically, he said, a predetermined portion of revenue generated will be directed back to the park that hosts the concession, while another portion would be set aside for use in other parks. A third slice of the revenue may go to management fees.
Allen cited the Horticultural Center’s arrangement with Stephen Starr Events (the restaurateur’s catering division) as an example. In that situation, 50 percent of the revenues generated for PPR are earmarked for the Horticultural Center itself, while another 30 percent are set aside for other park uses, and 20 percent go to the Conservancy as a management fee.
GATEWAYS OF THE FUTURE: PROMISING, WITH CAVEATS
Maura McCarthy, executive director of the Friends of the Wissahickon, said that regardless of how the parks’ concessions partnerships are organized, the focus on gateways makes strategic sense, but carries risks if unevenly applied.
“Most people can agree that whole sections of our park are radically underutilized,” she said. “The fear, of course, is that there is a tendency to reinvest in areas that are already experiencing some investment growth, rather than make investments in areas that are truly hurting. The temptation will be to use tried-and-true areas.”
The “gateway” dynamic will work best when concessionaires truly fit the community they mean to serve, she said. In the Wissahickon, she said, the Cedars House Café has become a stabilizing force for the busy Northwestern Avenue entrance. But it also demonstrates the need to carefully consider each gateway’s specific needs.
“Running groups meet there. The owners are very active in park safety. It helps build the civic life,” she said of Cedars House. “But would it be appropriate even in another part of the Wissahickon? It was so context-specific. The owner was already a part of the community, and had a vision for creating additional involvement. Which is why I think that location really works.”
DiBerardinis and other park officials all promise that any future conversation about specific gateways will include community outreach, and that concessions will be tailored with an eye towards the needs of both residents and visitors.
Allen also said that conversations have now begun about bringing concessions to recreation centers. That possibility is complicated by the fact that the centers have advisory boards that are entitled to raise funds on their own for things like programming and uniforms. “We’re at the early stages of discussion,” Allen said.
Ott Lovell said that a likely next target for gateway-style development will be the entrances to East Fairmount Park in Strawberry Mansion. The Conservancy sponsored the first annual “Boxers Trail Run” in East Park in October, and plans to organize among community groups to drum up interest and learn how East Park could better serve local residents. Her hope is that within two or three years, a community-supported plan might be in place to create welcoming, amenity-rich gateways along 33rd Street that make it easier to access East Park’s many attractions, which include the Smith Playground, the Dell East Music Center, a number of historic homes and playing fields, and a planned Outward Bound/Audubon nature center that will sit by the existing reservoir.
“We’re laying the groundwork,” Ott Lovell said. “It has to be community focused. If this isn’t economic development for Strawberry Mansion, it’s a failure.”
Tyrone Williams, an outreach worker at the Strawberry Mansion Action Center near East Fairmount Park, said he hopes that PPR makes good on its promise to involve communities in gateway development.
The Action Center serves as Strawberry Mansion’s official community development corporation, and Williams said PPR’s vision could dovetail nicely with the organization’s plans to beautify the park entrance at 33rd and Oxford Streets. “We welcome new projects, but we welcome with reluctance if we find out about it secondhand. We’d like to be part of the planning in the beginning,” said Williams.
DiBerardinis is confident that the existing concessions bidding process is transparent enough to keep any cronyism or pay-to-play-style corruption at bay. But he also said that it will always be important to keep City Council and Mayor Michael Nutter fully engaged with any prospective projects. “You have to pay attention to interests,” DiBerardinis said. “If you don’t pay attention to those interests, you could have the best idea, and adhere to the formal process, and still not succeed.”
FOW’s McCarthy said she’s optimistic that PPR can handle its concessions both ethically and with proper community outreach. But as concessions expand, McCarthy said, so too will the responsibilities for neighborhood watchdogs and Friends groups. It’s up to citizens to make sure that new concessions match the needs of communities and their parks, she said.
“Nothing will absolve the community of the responsibility to monitor its own assets,” said McCarthy. “There’s a risk in [any] city that decisions won’t be made in the best public interest. But this is the responsibility of the Friends groups and the neighbors to really be participants in the life of their own communities.”
Bill Hangley, Jr. is a freelance writer who lives and works in West Philadelphia. He has served as an occasional editorial consultant to the Parks Alliance and is a regular contributor to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook and WHYY’s NewsWorks.
images: (1) The Cosmic Café, along Kelley drive, is one “gateway” concession in Fairmount Park; (2) New Wheel Fun Concession along Kelley drive offers bicycles and surreys to park goers (by: Andy Viren); (3) Burholme Golf Concession in Northeast Philadelphia (by: Andy Viren); (4) The Horticultural Center’s concession, Stephen Starr Events, is managed in partnership with the Conservancy (by: Stephen Star Events); (5) East Fairmount Park entrance could be a future target of gateway-style development