An investment in parks and public spaces is money well spent

As an aspiring football player, I experienced firsthand the value of parks and recreation to communities.

I was first introduced to organized football in a park, just a bicycle ride from my home. I gained skills far beyond throwing a pass or kicking a ball and learned some of life’s most important lessons, like the value of discipline, leadership and teamwork. So much of the success I’ve enjoyed in my life can be attributed to the coaches and counselors who helped me grow up in parks.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez is considering the idea of inviting voters to weigh in on the importance of parks, beaches and public spaces to their lives and the lives of their children. Together with other vital services, like libraries and the arts, parks contribute greatly to our quality of life in Miami-Dade. With an eye toward the future, and a realistic, inclusive approach, the mayor is signaling that it’s time to renew our commitment to the places and services that will create a more livable Miami-Dade.

When the economy was at its lowest point, the Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department sacrificed with the loss of more than 300 full-time positions and an estimated $20 million in deferred maintenance.

As the general fund subsidy shrunk by almost $21 million, Parks grew its earned revenues, and through the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade, a non-profit, non-government 501(c)(3) made up of volunteers who provide private funds and support to our parks system, ramped up fundraising to fill funding gaps with as little impact to residents as possible.

As a result, programs and services are still there, but barely. Facilities are intact, but in need of repair, and not befitting of our world-class image. The 50-year vision to connect great parks, public spaces and cultural facilities with great trails and tree-lined streets remains just that — a vision.

We are seeing rusting playgrounds, weathered basketball courts and dilapidated or missing fences sprouting up across the county. Parks in need of lighting and security cameras must close at dusk to minimize security risks. Even more shameful, in the last month, two youths were shot in county parks.

We must focus on expanding our nationally recognized afterschool program promoting safe, organized play that keeps kids engaged and out of trouble while also reducing our community’s obesity rates one precious child at a time. We must provide the sense of place that families and businesses long for, and stay one step ahead of other communities seeking to lure vacationers away from our beaches and attractions.

Maintaining the status quo won’t create jobs, improve aesthetics, better promote health and wellness or leave the legacy we want for our children and grandchildren. We’ll just continue to limp along convincing ourselves that somehow less is more when all it really is  is less.

If we do not aspire to more for our community, we are destined for mediocrity and will never be, as Ronald Reagan put it, that shining city on a hill. Deteriorating and uninspired public spaces cannot be the cornerstone of our public realm.

Parks recently asked residents what they wanted from their parks system. It’s no surprise that safe, convenient, quality facilities and a diverse array of recreational and cultural programming topped the list. What we don’t know is just how valued those quality of life services are. A referendum will give us that answer.

Let’s take a broader, more-strategic look at Miami-Dade County’s park, recreation and public space needs and make a lasting investment. Support Mayor Gimenez in his call for additional resources for parks, libraries and arts. If we manage and invest wisely, our children and grandchildren will reap the return.

Dick Anderson is a businessman, former Florida state senator and two-time Super Bowl champion who spent his 10-year career with the Miami Dolphins. He serves as president of the Parks Foundation of Miami-Dade.

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