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An Open Letter to Mecklenburg County

5/28/2021

Greetings,

Park and Rec Director Lee JonesMy name is W. Lee Jones and I am the Director of the Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department. During my 17-year tenure, I have seen a lot of changes within the Department and in our Park & Recreation system. When I became Director three years ago, I committed to do everything within my power to make the Department the best in the nation. This aspirational goal required strategic planning, collaboration and vision. With the support of the County Manager’s Office, the Board of County Commissioners, the Park & Recreation Commission and our residents, we have forged a path to excellence in the provision of recreation services to our patrons.

That path started from within the Department. We created the first Comprehensive Park & Recreation Masterplan in 2008 and updated it in 2015. The passage of a $250M bond referendum in 2008 yielded significant growth of and upgrades to our park system. Though the momentum of this path to success was hampered by the recession of 2009, the Department continued to forge ahead. In 2012, we received the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) Gold Medal Award for being the Best Park and Recreation Department in the Nation with a population of 500,000 and above. What is interesting about this achievement is that during that same year, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) ranked us as #39 out of the 40 largest City Park & Recreation Departments in the nation. How can these rankings be at opposite ends of the spectrum? The answer is in what is measured and how it is measured. After winning the Gold Medal, we hosted the NRPA Convention in Charlotte in 2014. It was a resounding success and listed as one of the most well-attended NRPA Conventions. In 2016, the TPL looked at 100 cities instead of 50 and we “moved up” in its rankings to the mid 90’s… still low but with a slight improvement.

We are currently in the final stages of completing our new Comprehensive Park & Recreation Masterplan known as Meck Playbook. This plan will set a roadmap for the successful growth, staffing, funding and operation of our Park and Recreation Department for the next 10 years. It outlines goals and objectives for performance while fostering equity, inclusion and balance in all aspects of our function. It guides us in filling gaps for services and amenities and directs us to reinvest in areas of need. The conclusions were developed via assessments, benchmarking, community input and customer satisfaction surveys.

Despite low rankings in some studies based on methodologies not aligned to the particular context, geography and physical layout of our city and county, we ARE a great system. As an architect, I understand the importance of good design. Just take a walk through some of the sites in our system. You will find wonderfully designed buildings, protected natural resource sites and special facilities linked together by our award-winning greenway system. We are fully accredited by the Commission for Accreditation of Park & Recreation Agencies (CAPRA). We provide innovative programs for all strata and demographics of our population. Our dedicated and prideful employees thrive in welcoming environments absent of harassment, bullying or retaliation. We welcome their input and innovative ideas that constantly challenge us to do better, particularly in the provision of exemplary customer service.

The Board, County Leadership and I have committed to this as evidenced by dedicating time to evaluation and planning as well as increased funding towards these ends on an annual basis for the past four years. The latest TPL ranking has us moving up even higher this year. Though still low from a ranking perspective, constant improvement is a good thing. It is important to note that participation in this process is voluntary. Only 97 out of the 100 TPL ranked Park and Recreation Departments submitted data this year. Given that there are over 12,000 Park & Recreation Departments in the United States, one can only wonder how the other 11,903 would compare to Mecklenburg County. I would only ask that you do your own assessment of our park and recreation system and let us know your thoughts. Your input and that from the North Carolina Park & Recreation Association (NCRPA) NRPA and TPL will inspire us to continually improve.

Sincerely,

W. Lee Jones, AIA, NCARB
Director
Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation Department