By Dave Felice
Exclusive to Denver Direct
In spite of community opposition, Denver Parks and Recreation Manager Kevin Patterson is forging ahead with implementation of a controversial policy to allow exclusive commercial events in public parks.
Patterson says his department will start accepting applications in November from operators who want to close parts of parks and stage events open only to those who pay an admission fee. “Although the Policy lists eight specific parks where admissions based events can be held, I have instructed my staff to only accept applications for Civic Center, Confluence, Skyline, Ruby Hill, Parkfield, and Stapleton Central parks for the 2011 season as well as all event facilities and special occasion sites for Confluence, Skyline and Centennial,” Patterson writes in a letter to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
Commenting on the controversial proposal to close parts of public parks, Patterson says: “While there has been a great deal of conversation about sale or leasing of park land, I want to be clear that this is neither of those instruments. This is a permit. It grants exclusive authority to an entity to use the space for a period of time, to make sure there are no added conflicts for the use of the space.”
Numerous neighborhood organizations and individuals have complained that granting exclusive authority for a closed commercial event, no matter how long, is a violation of the City Charter and the principle that taxpayer funded parks should be free and open to the public. Opponents have formed the online community known as parksareforpeople.org to continue to express resistance.
The Advisory Board accepted the policy recommendation last month, following a public hearing during which many people criticized the policy. There are ongoing concerns about preventing the public from full use of park land, severe disruption to neighborhoods. The Board voted 10-7 to endorse the policy with a review after the first year.
Patterson has acknowledged that revenue to the city is not a motivating factor to allow admissions based events, and the Parks and Recreation Department has been unable to document any significant demand for such events.
While the original policy covers those parks where the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverage is currently allowed, parksareforpeople.org points out that the Parks Manager is not prevented from expanding the policy to ANY park at any time. In addition, suggested fees for park leases are well below market rates, creating an unfair competitive advantage for event operators over existing businesses.
Patterson says the Parks Department needs to work on a fee structure and determine how fees can be used. “We have to have an ordinance that allows us to collect fees and use the fees specifically for parks,” Patterson told the Advisory Board. City Council also will have to approve a change if money from the seat tax is to be returned to parks. Right now, that money goes into the general fund.
Opponents vow to continue to protest the policy in any way legally possible, including refusal to support events and event sponsors. The controversial policy could be issue in the mayoral and city council elections next May. The Parks Manager is an appointee of the mayor.
The full text of Patterson’s letter follows:
September 9, 2010
Dear Denver Parks and Recreation Advisory Board members:
First and foremost, I wanted to thank you for your work, diligence and thoughtfulness on the Admission Based Events Policy. Although some of you have been involved in this discussion for almost four years and some of you were new to the conversation, I truly believe you were insightful and deliberate in your voting.
I have taken your comments and suggestions from this past year, as well as your recommendations from your recent board meeting to develop a reasonable, rational, and equitable implementation plan.
Let me clarify some points that have been raised during the discussion and development of the revised policy. We began this process with a land area restriction of 20% of a park or 20 acres within a park, whichever was smaller. This was in direct response to the concerns about limiting the size of the events. We have further restricted the maximum size to 5 contiguous acres in a park, and we have also limited the number to 8 parks (City, Civic Center, Confluence, Skyline, Sloan’s Lake, Ruby Hill, Parkfield, and Stapleton Central Park), 4 special occasion sites already within the 8 parks (City Park Meadow and Flower Garden, Confluence, and Skyline), 1 additional special occasion site (Centennial), and 4 event facilities (Molkery, Chief Hosa, Stapleton Central Park, and Washington Park Boat House). The original policy had a limit of 10,000 patrons, and we have restricted that down to 7,500.
We also heard from the community about the concerns with the frequency and duration of the permitted events. The original policy stated that 80% of events had to be free and open to the public. It also limited the number of events to four in a month. In the new policy, we have the admission based events as the lowest priority after all of the other permitting categories have picked their dates and times in the November permitting timeframe.
While there has been a great deal of conversation about sale or leasing of park land, I want to be clear that this is neither of those instruments. This is a permit. It grants exclusive authority to an entity to use the space for a period of time, like a picnic site. A permit is simply to make sure there are no added conflicts for the use of the space from other people or entities who may want to schedule an event, whether it is a family reunion, wedding, or an admission based event.
Let me outline my thoughts on how this new permitting process will move forward for the 2011 season:
Although the Policy lists eight specific parks where admissions based events can be held, I have instructed my staff to only accept applications for Civic Center, Confluence, Skyline, Ruby Hill, Parkfield, and Stapleton Central parks for the 2011 season as well as all event facilities and special occasion sites for Confluence, Skyline and Centennial. There are three basic reasons for this decision. First, we have to look at the impact of construction at our parks and consider how much of our system has been inaccessible from Better Denver Bond and Capital Improvement projects. Second, we will give first priority to events that are either contained within a larger free event, or within one of our special occasion sites or event facilities. Third, we are focusing these events where the infrastructure exists or is being built to hold them within our system. I believe this will have the least impact on the parks, the surrounding neighborhoods, and will allow these events to fit within walls or an already accepted boundary that park patrons understand.
The Department will be finalizing a fee and revenue structure and will submit those for ordinance to City Council this fall. We are also working with the Budget Management Office, the Treasury Department, Theaters and Arenas and our own permitting office to develop sound procedures and mechanics for collecting fees and revenues.
It is essential that we implement this new permitting procedure in a deliberate way to ensure the department can accurately and effectively support the events and our community.
FIRST YEAR REVIEW
I am recommending that we return to you, the Advisory Board, in October 2011 to provide a report on the number of admission based events, revenues, strengths, areas of improvement and other general information in order to facilitate further process improvements for 2012 and beyond. We will ask a small subgroup of the Advisory Board to assist us in determining the indicators of success, so that we may better gather data over the next year.
Please let me know if you have any other questions at this time and again, thank you for helping to ensure a strong and effective policy for our parks.
Kevin N. Patterson
Friday, September 10, 2010
By Dave Felice