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Making Memories in Anaheim

2012-12-01, Department, by Elizabeth Beard

This year's Opening General Session began with a memorable performance by the All-American Boys' Chorus.Known as a place where memories are made every day, Anaheim, California, provided plenty of memorable moments for attendees of this year’s NRPA Congress and Exposition. After all, not every Congress features a friendly six-foot tall raccoon, a display of fantasy custom motorcycles, top Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and a ride on Space Mountain. Yet, perhaps the most memorable moment came at the opening keynote, as a quiet description of an old, blind dog by the river at night under the stars brought thousands to their feet.

If last year’s Congress sparked renewed optimism in the future for parks and recreation, this year that fire burned brightly with commitments to action in all three pillars of the profession: conservation, health and wellness, and social equity. More than 6,500 attendees learned, engaged, networked, and even played their way toward a greater holistic view of the field, advancing their role as leaders at the local level while pushing forward a national agenda for parks and recreation.

Pillars of the Field

The Opening General Session began with a beautiful performance by the local All-American Boys Chorus and an important announcement—the launch of a new partnership between NRPA and the National Wildlife Federation to bring 10 million kids out to nature in the next three years. NRPA President and CEO Barbara Tulipane explained that the goal is to recruit at least 1,000 participating agencies, because every agency, whether it has land or not, has the resources to help connect kids with nature.

She challenged attendees with the question, “What is your agency doing to inspire your community?” Studies have shown that the number one reason people support parks is to protect open space and wildlife. Now, those conservation efforts can be translated into a dollars-and-cents economic impact as well, thanks to efforts like the growing PRORAGIS database and the new eco-benefits calculator.

Outgoing Chair Bob Johnson then took the stage to discuss the second pillar of NRPA—health and wellness. With half of the U.S. population projected to become obese by 2030, Johnson said that the solution was “right here in this arena.”

“We have the people, the space, the programs, and the knowledge. We’re local and we’re affordable; we just need to get out and tell our story,” Johnson said.

He directed attendees to resources for data and messaging like California’s “Parks Make Life Better,” Missouri’s “Did You Know,” and the new tool kits from America’s Backyard. He said the challenge is “to think about how you can spread the word.”

Incoming Chair Steve Thompson noted that the third pillar—social equity—is a building block for fulfilling the other two pillars.

“It means ensuring that parks and recreation are equally accessible to all people,” Thompson said. “It’s a right, not a privilege, to have access.”

He pointed out that the American population is growing both older and more diverse. One way NRPA encourages initiatives to build equity is through the Parks Build Community program. For this year’s El Sereno project in East Los Angeles, a number of different partners were involved. How the park is transforming the community was already evident at the Community Build Day a few weeks prior to Congress. Thompson concluded by forecasting a bright future for parks as the profession improves and reinvents itself, saying that NRPA will be there with education, information, and research.

The Crap Factor

Economist Lowell Catlett, dean of the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Services and Regents’ professor at New Mexico State University, then launched into an engaging keynote presentation that linked the subjects of economics, human health, parks, and reconnecting people with nature. Catlett noted that with housing, food, and utilities at their lowest cost in history in the United States, disposable income (which he memorably called “the crap factor”) has now reached almost 70 percent of the average American’s income.

“You’ve got a 69 percent crap factor, folks. Let me tell you something—you can afford the best parks in the world,” Catlett said. “The Smithsonian did a survey two years ago and the crap factor for the world is 8 percent.”

Citing the old adage that “people afford what they want,” Catlett said the challenge for park and recreation agencies is to be innovative and creative to make people want to connect to nature and each other. New studies suggest that closer bonds with other people and animals lead to higher production of oxytocin and other chemicals, and that such bonds also are related to lower disease rates.

“You want to have healthy people? Don’t separate them from plants and animals and people!” he admonished.

Catlett wrapped up his talk with a poignant description of how the creation of a riverfront park in his hometown of Las Cruces gave him a place to bond with his retriever Tango in her last days, often going there with her at night.

“It’s about plants, it’s about connections, and it’s about a place for a blind dog to let a man see the stars,” he ended, as the crowd rose to a thunderous standing ovation. .

Professional Playground

From the Opening General Session, attendees flooded directly into the trade show, where they were greeted by more than 400 exhibitors who collectively had assembled one of the world’s largest playgrounds. Acres of the newest and most imaginative play and water structures filled the two large halls. One big draw was the appearance of Paul Teutul, Jr., of the television show “American Chopper,” who displayed three custom motorcycles at the Cre8Play booth. Exhibitors enthusiastically approved the new two-day format for the trade show, as extended exclusive hours brought a steady flow of heavy foot traffic. Most also reported a higher percentage of serious buyers than seen in recent years.

Upstairs, dozens of continuing education sessions covered topics including citizen advocacy; employee and volunteer management; environmental stewardship; healthy lifestyles; leadership and management; planning, design, and maintenance; professional development; public relations and marketing; recreation programming; revenue and customer service; and sports. Many sessions were completely full and included lively question-and-answer sessions.

At the NRPA Community Center, laptops and staff were available to help agencies start their PRORAGIS profiles (PRORAGIS, short for Park and Recreation Operating Ratio and Geographic Information System, is a national database that allows park and recreation agencies to benchmark with others, develop program planning, and enhance overall community operations). More than 200 agencies took advantage of the opportunity, especially using the new 20-question QuickStart format. Two PRORAGIS education sessions highlighted how to use the system and some of the almost infinite benchmarking applications available.

The Happiest Places on Earth

Disneyland proved to be a gracious host for Tuesday’s evening social, a highlight of the week for many NRPA members. Attendees had run of the full park for two hours and then exclusive access to Tomorrowland for another two hours. When not zooming wildly on rocket ships through Space Mountain or zipping down the Matterhorn’s bobsleds, attendees could enjoy several buffets of international favorites.

Wednesday evening featured the Best of the Best award ceremony and reception (see National and Network Awards on page 54), along with the ever-popular Student Quiz Bowl, won by the team from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. The Jeopardy-style contest included raucous cheering and even bags of popcorn.

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, many attendees ventured off-site to see the positive results of their avocation firsthand at a commemoration ceremony for the new Parks Build Community playground in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno. The El Sereno Arroyo Playground has been selected as a national demonstration site for the National Natural Play and Learning Project of the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Learning Institute of North Carolina State University. Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa was on hand to give the community their first chance to play at the new park, built on a formerly vacant lot as part of his “50 Parks Initiative” to create 50 new parks in Los Angeles.

“As a son of the East Side, I know what it’s like to grow up in a people-rich, park-poor neighborhood, and I know what a difference even the smallest park can make,” said Mayor Villaraigosa. “I couldn’t be prouder that, through the 50 Parks Initiative, we are able to build the El Sereno Arroyo Playground in this community.”

Everything Is Bigger in Texas

NRPA prides itself on offering park and recreation professionals the best in educational opportunities, networking, and advancement through the annual Congress and Exposition. Attendee feedback is being used to continue to improve and provide the best Congress experience. Join us next year October 8-10, 2013, in Houston, Texas.

Perfect Attendance
48 Congresses and Counting

Harvey Feldman’s long record of national conference attendance began inauspiciously with the National Recreation Association conference in Minneapolis in 1965. At the time, Feldman was a recent college graduate and employed as the first director of parks and recreation in the town of New Hope, Minnesota. However, the Minnesota Twins had made it to the World Series and the owner of the Hotel Leamington, who was eyeing a future purchase of the Twins team, booted out the NRA attendees in order for the hotel to serve as a headquarters for Major League Baseball. Attendees had to scramble to find new accommodations, Feldman chuckles. So why did he return 47 times?

“I’m extremely passionate about parks and recreation,” Feldman says. “My whole being has been connected with providing quality of life experiences….I felt that the only way to be on the cutting edge of things was to hear from people across the country about what they were doing in parks and recreation. That’s what motivated me.

“I have found friends from all over the United States throughout those years—that’s your social network, if you will,” he continues. “I found it extremely important to be on the cutting edge of things and NRPA was the place to do that.”

Perhaps his most memorable Congress was in Tampa in 2002, when he served as program chair. And he served as a host coordinator for the 1981 and 1994 meetings, also held in Minneapolis. What makes his streak even more remarkable is that he has paid his own way for the past several years, using funds earned from his small consulting business, Park and Recreation Consultants, LLC. Feldman is a member of the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration and was director of the Recreation Facilities Management Institute at the University of Minnesota. At Congress he is often spotted with his “amigos” Ernest Burkeen and Ron Olson.

Although Feldman has some concerns about how shorter Congresses and delegates being housed over multiple hotels may be reducing the opportunities for connection, he enjoyed the Anaheim meeting, especially Mike Kirschman’s (Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina) presentation on the calculating the economic value of open space. And will we see him next year in Houston?

“More and more of my colleagues are retiring,” Feldman muses. “But now some of my former students are starting to come, so we’ll see.”

Elizabeth Beardis Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation (

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