FORT WAYNE – Property taxpayers gave the city’s Parks and Recreation Department $13.4 million last year – but many of them felt that wasn’t enough and voluntarily gave $1 million more.
Year after year, in a practice unique among governmental taxing bodies, people give money to the parks, from pennies collected by children to memorial trees planted in memory of a loved one to huge swaths of land or the money to develop that land into a park.
It’s significant, said Richard Samek, president of the parks board. We appreciate every gift we get.
And they get a lot of them: Parks Director Al Moll said the department averages about $1 million in donations a year.
Moll said the donations are not only appreciated but are vital to the historic park system.
We probably could not keep the parks up the way we do without that, Moll said.
Two of the most visible examples of donations are downtown: Freimann Square and the Courthouse Green are maintained using money from endowments set aside for that purpose. The donated money stays in a special fund, and the investment earnings pay for the upkeep in perpetuity.
Freimann Square is totally endowed – that park does not cost the taxpayers any money, said the department’s Garry Morr, who oversees donations to the department. The same as the Courthouse Green.
There are other large examples of how donations have changed the face of the park system, such as Kreager Park, which was only able to be transformed from a potato field to a 173-acre park because of a $2.5 million donation from Gale Kreager.
We couldn’t have afforded to do that, Morr said.
Donations changed Kreager again when a then-11-year-old girl named Taylor Reuille dreamed of a boundless playground fully accessible to all, regardless of disability. Taylor’s Dream opened in 2011 thanks to years of fundraising to get the $1.2 million needed, plus an endowment for future needs.
People are very passionate about their parks, and they’re passionate enough that they write checks, Morr said. Our community supports our parks.
‘Ahead of the curve’
The community supports its parks in ways other communities do not, Morr said, and it has gone on for decades.
When Morr went to training seminars for parks executives back in the early 1990s, he said, parks officials from around the country were amazed to hear the amount of donations Fort Wayne parks were receiving and couldn’t believe a system this size has a foundation to handle them.
They would look at you like, Really?’ Morr said. We’ve always been ahead of the curve nationally on this.
The Fort Wayne Park Foundation is a registered nonprofit, allowing tax-exempt donations and also restricted donations – where the donor specifies what the money must be used for, such as planting trees or tending the Lakeside Park Rose Gardens.
We have a lot of benches, and if you look, you’ll see there’s a plaque on them, Morr said. Those are paid for from donations. And that’s what we have the Park Foundation for – its sole purpose is to benefit the city park system. And for people who don’t want to write a check to the city of Fort Wayne, it’s a nonprofit, 501(c), so it’s all tax deductible.
The foundation has assets of about $7 million and gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to the department every year, depending on investment income, donations and grants.
Of course, money isn’t the only thing donated – Morr said hundreds of people donate something just as valuable: their time.
We have a corps of volunteers that donate hundreds or thousands of hours, Morr said. These folks are out there daily, and they don’t get a lot of credit for that. You walk into the Botanical Conservatory, the person at the front desk and the people running the gift shop? They’re all volunteers. They love it, and we couldn’t do it without them.
Morr said he doesn’t know whether it’s the parks’ history – 16 of them are more than a century old – or that the parks department has always tried to set itself apart a bit from city government, but residents see an investment in their parks in a different way than they see an investment in a new sewer line, though both are vital to the community.
Even when people come to the city as newcomers – and we hear this all the time – they love the park system, Morr said. And they love it so much, they’re willing to give us money.