The secrets to rebuilding the award-winning Nashua park system

George Crombie
Director of Public Works
City of Nashua, New Hampshire
Member, APWA Solid Waste Management Committee

In 1999, I became the Director of Public Works for the City of Nashua. The Division of Public Works is comprised of seven departments, which include Traffic, Wastewater, Solid Waste, Streets, Administration, Engineering, and Parks and Recreation.

One of my first tasks as director was to identify the needs and capabilities of each department. After careful research and listening to all parties, I reached the following conclusions. The residents of Nashua wanted a first-class park system and were discouraged at the present condition of the park system. The employees working in the parks department wanted to do a good job, but the organizational structure that they were working within never gave them an opportunity to succeed.

Today, less than four years later, more than 20 million dollars have been invested into the park system. Our parks are alive with smiling faces and laughing children. It is impossible in the space allocated for this article to give you a complete evaluation of each project, but I believe it is more beneficial to outline the recipe for success:

Never begin the planning process by saying you don't have the money or the staff. This is a guarantee for failure. I can assure you that we didn't have 20 million dollars sitting on the table when we began the park planning process. You need to be able to dream and outline what you want your park system to be. Our goal was to develop the best park system for a community of 90,000 residents. By letting yourself dream, you don't allow yourself to be restricted by worrying how you are going to pay for the improvements and how you are going to get the work completed. Be sure that once you have finished your vision that the ideas are shared with the community. When you put ideas and thoughts together, it is surprising how others will join your coalition, and come up with their own thoughts on how to enhance the proposals you have outlined.

Dreaming of what you want to do without a strategy of how you are going to put that dream into reality is not enough. The development of a strategy requires the expertise of park history, funding mechanisms, project development skills, coalition building, and the ability to work these principles into a manageable plan. A good strategy takes highly experienced individuals who have the ability to take visions and turn them into viable plans. An experienced strategist in the case of park development knows where the funding sources are located, not just in monetary terms but in opportunities that create capital, has studied how the great parks have been built, knows how to build coalitions, understands how the public sector operates, and has experience in bringing all of this expertise together in developing a "straight face" plan. There is no substitute for this experience. Without a good strategy, your dreams will be just another report on your bookshelf.

Each project is a venture within itself. There are different coalition groups, money sources, and catalysts that drive individual projects. Timing and chemistry play an important role in the development of a project. Here are a few examples of how dreams and a strategy turn into realities:

Ice Hockey Facility — We knew the City didn't have the capital money to build an ice rink. What we did know is what it cost to build a rink and what the ice revenue sources were. By bringing together a group of community business people who wanted to give back to the community, and with the City recognizing that it needed to put up the land to make the economics work, a deal was worked out. Through a private-public partnership with the business community putting up the capital and the City putting up the land for a dollar, we were able to form a nonprofit corporation with all proceeds beyond the cost of the capital and operating costs going back into the park system.

Baseball Stadium — The Nashua Pride is a professional baseball team affiliated with the Atlantic League and play their home games at Holman Stadium in Nashua. The Pride's goal was to enhance the stadium from a marketing perspective (sky boxes, etc.). The City's goal was to upgrade the stadium from an infrastructure perspective. Through a private-public arrangement, the City approved a $4.2 million bond with the principal and interest payments being split 50-50. The Pride got a stadium that allowed them to compete in the professional baseball market, and the City not only got an upgraded stadium infrastructure but also a great venue for youth sports. This project won the "Outstanding Engineering Project of the Year" by the New Hampshire Society of Engineers, a New Hampshire Preservation Award, and was selected by APWA as a Project of the Year in the "Historical Restoration/Preservation $2-$10 Million" category.

"Le Parc de Notre Renaissance Francaise" — The French Community in Nashua had raised funds to purchase a beautiful sculpture to recognize the French Heritage in the community and was looking for a location to place this beautiful piece of work. Through a cooperative venture, the Division of Public Works designed and built the park along the river for the sculpture.

Annual Park Projects — Each year, the Division of Public Works schedules into its work plan the construction of one or more parks. These parks are designed and built utilizing the City workforce. Communities across the country are sitting on a diamond in the rough by using their public works departments to help construct parks.

Federal and State Funding — It is imperative that communities understand where state and federal funding is available. Over the last couple of years we have received close to one million dollars in federal HUD grants, and are now working with the Army Corp of Engineers to improve water quality in one of our parks that will bring significant federal funding into the park system. The City will leverage in-kind services to match the grant money.

Beneficial Reuse Projects — In Nashua, a number of parks were constructed over old landfills that required significant environmental upgrades. Through a $5 million SRF loan from the state, we were able to rebuild four parks and construct a parking lot adjacent to a new rectangular field to be used for both the high school and recreation activities. The SRF loan paid for the parking lot and the school paid for the stadium with funding coming from naming rights, a 30 percent grant for school facility construction, and funding from a bond issue. This multi-site project will be featured in an APWA publication coming out later this year, and has just received an "Environmental Merit Award" by EPA.

Stormwater Park — In the vicinity of one of our City parks, the Wastewater Department was in need of a location to discharge stormwater during heavy rain events. The logical location was parkland adjacent to the drainage project. The situation created a win-win for both parties. The Wastewater Department received a location to discharge its stormwater, and the Parks and Recreation Department got a new wetlands park.

Park Interest Groups — Over the past three years, we have worked to build coalitions with the garden club, the schools, downtown business community, nonprofit organizations like the Rotary, and neighborhoods. Each and every one of these relationships has provided volunteers, funding opportunities and improvements to the park system. Good parks come by dreaming, creating strategies, and always taking advantage of the opportunities at hand.

One of the signatures of our public works department is to invest in our employees. Investing in education, technology, and state-of-the-art equipment, you will see an increase in quality service and fiscal responsibility. If you are going to be in the park business, you need to do it correctly. Using poor equipment and not investing in education will always cost you more money in the end. We hold formal training sessions for our employees, encourage participation in professional organizations, one of our park employees is on the NFL Super Bowl maintenance crew each January, and we have a great relationship with the University of New Hampshire cooperative extension service. We have purchased the latest equipment in field maintenance, and use the best practices possible in the design and maintenance of our playing fields. These investments pay significant dividends in employee productivity, morale, and the quality of the playing fields. I have found that the vast majority of employees want to be well-trained and use state-of-the-art equipment.

In many communities, parks and recreation departments are separate from public works. In my opinion, that is a mistake if you are committed to building parks. Some of the best parks in the country were built in the 1930s as public works projects. Most towns have public works departments that can be a tremendous resource base for the talent required to create a park. To construct a park, you need engineers, agronomists, drain layers, landscape architects, electricians, plumbers, heavy equipment operators, and carpenters. Unless you are in a large metropolitan area, park departments are not equipped with these skills. In most public works departments you will find these skills. In every single park project we have completed in Nashua, the departments within public works have played a major role in their success and are proud of their contributions.

I can remember a number of early interviews where individuals told me they would not support a dime going into the parks until they could see that the money would be well spent. People have a great deal of pride in their community, and when things are being done well, you begin to gain tremendous support for what you are doing, and the community at large is much more willing to support your work.

There is a saying that "no good deed goes unpunished." Many park projects that become community signatures have not always had smooth sailing from the start. It takes a great deal of perseverance from the inception of a good project until the ribbon is cut. Each of our projects has gone through an average of 12 approval steps before construction actually started. All projects have their critics no matter how good you think the project is.

There is a saying (from the movie "Field of Dreams") that "if you build it, they will come." We have found this to be true in our park system. Our summer camp applications have more than tripled. By installing artificial snow-making equipment and artificial ice at our winter park, we have not only extended the winter season by more than a month, but we have seen a tremendous rise in the use of the facilities. Our Summer Fun Program that is geared to the art and musical programs is exploding in attendance and the corporate donations are up despite the downturn in the economy. Two years ago, we built a new playground area for children. The design included elements to ensure that the use of the park would not hamper the physically challenged. This play area has become so popular that the local newspaper has placed a paper box at its entrance. By constructing good parks, you are creating a wonderful atmosphere that allows the community to come together.

One of the things that I admire at our park ribbon cuttings is the number of people that are involved in the success of each project. There is never just one individual who stands out, but a whole community of very talented individuals who have come together to make each park process a success.

In summary, parks are not luxuries but are resources vital to the quality of life of each of us as individuals. Human beings need to be associated with nature. Whether you are involved with active recreation or have the opportunity to sit or walk in a quiet park, it provides each of us tranquility. If you travel to any great city across the country, you will find great parks. If you explore through the archives of that community, you will discover that each and every park has a story. You will find that the players will be different, the timing of developments will be different, the designs will differ, and the hurdles to success will be comprised of highs and lows that will differ. What you will find similar is that each great park began with an understanding of how great parks are developed, a dream, a strategy, a diverse coalition and the ability to seize the opportunities of their particular time. The real secret in rebuilding the Nashua park system has been our ability to learn from those before us, and the perseverance to build the finest park system in the country for a community our size.

George Crombie, a Top Ten recipient in 2002, can be reached at (603) 589-3140 or at CrombieG@ci.nashua.nh.us.