Johnson County's lackluster parks effort
The Kansas City Star
Johnson County residents deserve better parks. To make that happen, residents may need to turn up the volume on their expectations.
The status quo — marked by rather timid leadership from the Board of Park and Recreation Commissioners, the County Commission and the civic community — sure isn’t working.
While priding itself on being a “community of choice,” Johnson County has fallen far short of meeting the standards set a decade ago to acquire and develop enough park land to serve its fast-growing population.
As a result, the county got notice of failing grades.
The “Master Action Plan 2020 Report Card” — prepared by the Park and Recreation District staff — gave the county an “F” for the amount of park acres developed and opened in the past 10 years.
The county also got “Fs” because it hadn’t opened the two new regional parks proposed a decade ago or opened any of the nine planned additional sub-regional parks.
One high-profile disappointment concerns the nearly 2,000-acre Big Bull Creek Park. Voters in 1998 approved bonds to acquire land for that regional park near Edgerton in the county’s southwest corner. The park remains undeveloped more than 13 years later.
The report card “certainly reflects we’re not where we hoped to be,” concedes Randy Knight, the park district’s community relations manager. Parks director Michael Meadors laments that too-little money has been spent on a crucial quality-of-life issue.
The key to improving the parks is more public money to develop and maintain acres of already-acquired land.
But for years the park board has been too restrained — or been shoved out of the way — when it came time to request more funds. In the 2000s, school districts got access to the county’s sales tax funds, until voters in late 2008 diverted that revenue to support the medical research triangle.
Certainly, the last three years have been tough economically. Yet voters or determined elected officials managed to boost taxes in a number of school districts and cities.
Park board chair Nancy Wallerstein says Shawnee Mission Park and Antioch Park “are being loved to death.” So she logically adds, “We need to get some of this land we’ve been buying” open to the public.
But Wallerstein says she needs to make sure the park board itself “becomes more familiar” with the 2020 plan before considering whether to go to the County Commission to find a way to get more park funding.
Meanwhile, that commission has been in cutback mode. Members have been talking about shoring up general fund reserves and slicing expenses, not boosting property taxes to pay for better parks.
Commissioner Ed Peterson isn’t optimistic that — unless civic and political winds change — much will change soon. But Peterson agrees the county “has a lot of land that’s just sitting there, not being developed into park land.”
His prediction: “If voters have the opportunity, they’ll support park development.” That kind of positive attitude will help move this issue forward.
The park board this year must evaluate how much money it would take to properly develop large tracts of land the county already owns.
Then the board and County Commission would have to ask voters to decide whether they want to upgrade the park system. Along the way, some civic leaders who have long championed the parks as a top county amenity need to step to the plate.
It’s time to stop overlooking the crucial importance of the county’s undeveloped park land and start investing in it so it can be enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people.