Philly’s Parks and Rec chief says Rebuild money needed more than ever

Listen 6:52

Philadelphia’s grand plan to update recreation centers through its Rebuild program hinges on revenue generated by the tax on sweetened beverages. That money is being held up as the city fights a legal challenge to the tax.

Still, plans are moving forward to revamp two recreation centers — Olney and Vare.

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn spoke with Kathryn Ott Lovell, Philadelphia’s commissioner of parks and recreation, about the projects, funding, and the controversial redesign of LOVE Park.

Lynn and Lovell spoke at the new multi-sport turf field at Smith Playground in South Philadelphia, starting their conversation with a quick game of basketball.

We’re at a park, it’s a beautiful day, and I borrowed a basketball. Are you up for a couple of shots?

Sure, why not? I’m the worst basketball player ever.

Well, I think I probably am. 

There will be a contest to see who’s worse. Oh my God. Look. She’s got a shot.

I’ve got style, but I don’t have a shot. I get it. I did watch a lot of the 76ers’ games. 

I’m the worst. I win.

All right, let’s go sit down and have a chat. We spoke about a year ago, and a lot has happened — and some things have not happened. This month, the city announced the first two rec centers to be renovated through the city’s rebuild program. What kind of makeovers are the Vare rec center in South Philly and the Olney rec center in North Philly going to get?

Makeovers very similar to what you see here today at Smith playground. This just underwent a $3 million transformation with new basketball courts, new playgrounds, brand new multipurpose artificial turf field. This is representative of what can happen when we invest in our facilities.

And this particular playground was able to benefit from a public-private partnership, a foundation led by a former Philadelphia Eagle, a guy who stepped in and really helped out tremendously. 

Yeah, Connor Barwin is a hero in so many ways, on and off the field. You know, he didn’t have to stay committed to Philly, once we lost him when the Eagles let him go. But that kind of public-private partnership is exactly what we’re looking to create as we redo other facilities. City government can’t do this work alone, so we’ll really be looking to nonprofit partners to help us make these transformations possible.

Well there is a money trail to follow that goes along with many of these renovations. The city has money in its fiscal year 2018 budget to fund this project. But going forward, it would like to use money from the sweetened beverage tax to fund similar projects. The city’s holding off on using that money due to a challenge of the tax’s legality at the state’s Supreme Court level. How long can the city keep waiting for this case to be settled before the Rebuild program is in jeopardy? 

Well, the truth is that we have some funds through the city capital budget, about $8 million this year. But that’s not enough. Projects like Vare, like Olney … they would eat up all that budget just themselves. So we’re really, really desperate to … issue the bonds, which we will use to fund these investments, so we know that there’s a revenue source coming in to help pay back those bonds.

But do you have a timeline before it sort of becomes crippling to the program? 

I think that timeline is now. Vare Recreation Center is an example of a place that will shut down if we can’t access Rebuild funds. The announcement last week will allow us to start a process at Vare and to start reimagining what that site can become, but to really fully realize that transformation, we will need to access the Rebuild dollars, the big money.

The Parks and Rec story is a business story. It’s not just the enjoyment of the outdoors and such. One of the things the city accomplished recently is that 30 workers per year are going to be hammering the nails, building the floors, putting up the walls, whipping these rec centers into shape under the auspices of an apprentice program. The program lines them up as union workers immediately and then provides a union card after about 3,000 hours. It’s a way to draw in people of color to the trades from the city into the industry, and women are encouraged to take part in this. Is this a template that could work for other projects as well?

Oh, absolutely. Not only will we have those apprentice positions as part of Rebuild, but we also have in our budget 40 additional positions, 40 full-time positions, within Parks and Recreation in skilled trades. We’re desperately waiting to hire for those positions because, No. 1, those individuals can work on some of these capital projects, but also they’ll be on hand to help steward and maintain those projects once they are completed. When you look at a site like this at Smith, it is a whole different level of expertise that we need to maintain this investment once it’s made.

I want to bring up another topic — a challenge this year, an aesthetic challenge. LOVE Park took a stab in the heart in the press and on social media a bit when it reopened after renovations in February. It’s been called lifeless, sterile, bland — and you have said it is not finished yet. 

Your [former] colleague Ashley Hahn wrote a great article that I think is really more in line with what we see every day at LOVE Park, and I see it coming back to life. I think the new design is exactly what the people of Philadelphia asked for. Once we really finish it — and all the furniture arrives, the food trucks come back, and the fountain is on — we’re going to be bombarded with people who are enjoying the new LOVE Park. 

What’s going on with the sale of items with the LOVE image on them? There’s a legal wrangle over who owns the image created by the late Robert Indiana. He just passed. Can the city legally continue to sell tchotchkes with the image on it? 

We do know that we need the foundation that represents the intellectual property of Robert Indiana. We know we need their permission before we can sell things. We learned that the hard way. We still are in conversations with the foundation on a weekly basis to hopefully create a really great working relationship moving forward. We really see this park as a great testament to Mr. Indiana’s incredible vision and his legacy. You know, we’ve built an entire park around this sculpture. So we’re really hopeful that we’re going to build a great working relationship moving forward with the foundation.

Hopeful and not panic-stricken. 

Not at all. I know it’s very important to honor his legacy especially now that he has passed, and I don’t think there’s any better way to do it than to really celebrate LOVE Park here. Right in the heart of our city.

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