Parks Supporters Hope State Lawmakers Restore Grant Funding

A new report shows local parks generate more than a billion dollars in spending and 10,000 jobs here in Houston. Despite that good news, parks supporters are hoping a parks grant program administered at the state level grows this year after shrinking to virtually nothing during the last legislative session. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports.

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As recently as 2002, the state provided over $20 million in Local Parks Grants, money matched at the local level and used for a variety of parks projects in Houston and across the state. During the last fiscal year, that total was reduced to just $5.6 million for the entire state, barely enough to cover administrative costs and leaving virtually nothing for actual grants. Jane Dembski is with the Texas Recreation and Parks Society and says several pending bills in the State House and Senate would uncap the percentage of a sporting goods tax parks share.

"If you buy a boat, if you buy a tennis racket or a baseball bat or whatever, there's a tax attached to that because you're purchasing something. That money is what we're talking about. Now there's way more than what we're asking for, but we want them to go back to how much they had funded for us before."

Parks supporters are asking for a $105 million total parks program budget, from which $25 million would go to the Local Parks Grant programs. Diane Schenke is the executive director of The Park People, a Houston organization that advocates for parks.

"Last year in the same year that there was $5 million for local parks grants, the whole state parks-rec budget was $32 million. They gave as much as they were able, they were just cut so low by the state legislature. Now we've got increased revenues and the parks I think badly need it."

House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 252 would allow more sporting goods tax revenues to flow to parks programs, including Local Parts Grants. Houston Parks and Recreation Director Joe Turner says a little over $5 million in parks grants to share with the entire state doesn't go very far.

"It cuts down, not only for Houston, it cuts down for any city in the state. $5.6 million doesn't go very far and in fact they cut the grants back. The maximum grant you can actually apply for is a $400,000 grant. It used to be $500,000. There were actually regional grants that used to go up to $2 million but they've all be cut back."

Those cutbacks have a very real impact on the local economy, according to Rob Rowland, who's the co-chair of the Parks Committee of the Greater Houston Partnership. He says companies actually look at things like park space when they're considering doing business here.

"These companies are run by young people who jog themselves and they want trails and park ammenities. Not everyone has an acre or two in their back yard and the parks are their yard. It helps build a quality workforce also."

A new Perryman Group report shows the statewide gross economic impact of local parks is over $6.4 billion in spending. You can find a link to that report on our website, KUHF.org

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