NRPA in Focus
Chair-Elect Steve Thompson
Steve Thompson is the chair-elect of the NRPA Board of Directors and CEO of the Wisconsin Park and Recreation Association. His career as a parks and recreation professional has spanned over three decades, and his service to NRPA has included both Board leadership and participation in numerous committees, planning teams, and special projects. Thompson will succeed the current chair, Bob Johnson, in 2013.
1. As we begin 2012, how would you describe the current state of parks and recreation in our country?
Due to the continuing recession, park and recreation agencies face increasing pressures of limited budgets and fiscal conservatism from their elected officials. Our park and recreation agencies are dealing with overwhelming challenges of developing alternative financing to supplement depleted property tax bases and remain afloat.
Park and recreation agencies across the nation continue to witness a decline in both revenue streams and personnel. In addition, a dangerous trend in viewing parks and recreation as a “non-essential” service has led to the outright elimination (or absorption by other departments) of many park and recreation agencies.
The face of the profession has changed, and many of our member agencies are now attempting to return to the foundational roots of parks and recreation—with enhanced focus on involving citizens in planning, leading advocacy efforts, educating constituents, and revising agency mission statements.
2. What is the most significant immediate challenge NRPA members face—and how is this Board guiding the association in addressing that challenge?
Grassroots campaigns relying on park jurisdiction residents must become an important tool and asset for our public park and recreation agencies in the years ahead. NRPA members will need to educate their citizens on the economic issues facing their respective agencies—and at the same time, rely on them to assist with needed fundraising efforts and partnerships for essential capital projects and operations expenses.
NRPA, along with the NRPA Board, has actively addressed the economic issues facing parks and recreation—and we are engaged in developing strategies to give members effective, tested, grassroots-focused resources and tools.
We also recognize the need for research and public discussion. NRPA has also published several important white papers that summarize key economic impact research—and the NRPA Board is committed to providing more resources like this. Recently, NRPA also partnered with the Urban Institute, hosting a roundtable of experts to explore the question of parks and recreation financing. Several important questions emerged from the roundtable—questions that will guide NRPA in undertaking further research.
3. NRPA’s recent legislative victory, the Senate’s passage of the FY 12 spending bill with $45 million appropriated for State Assistance, is one example of a national-level park advocacy achievement in tough economic times. Please comment on the Board’s role in such advocacy.
The importance of the NRPA Board to advocacy lies primarily in the development of strategy.
That is, the Board works to elevate NRPA’s role as the organization speaking on behalf of the nation’s public parks and recreation. And the Board also works to bring national attention to the importance of parks, as well as to the threats that they are facing at all levels. Finally, the Board leads in developing resources for affected members to use as they fight to prevent closures, conversions, and exploitation of state and local parks.
The NRPA Board also strongly encourages and supports the need to get members to attend the annual Legislative Forum in Washington, D.C., so that a large and unified front on important issues facing our industry can have an impact on Capitol Hill.
4. What is one area in which you would like to see this Board exercise greater (or different) leadership in 2012? How will you know whether you (or the Board) have succeeded?
During my first two terms on the NRPA Board that had 70 members, I encountered agonizing moments dealing with that governance structure—and I reached the point where I felt that I really wasn’t effective in my leadership role. Then, in an unprecedented turn of events, the Board seriously reviewed the governance structure, and after numerous meetings, discussions, and arguments, designed the now 21-member NRPA Board—a group that now represents the entire membership, not just particular regions, branches, or sections.
The Board recently took another major governance step by eliminating the position and role of the President on the Board, and continuing with a Board Chair—but with a change that will now allow either a professional or citizen to lead. This move was necessary to prevent membership and Board confusion regarding the roles and responsibilities of the President and Chair.
The NRPA Board now operates under a governance structure that allows us to work in concert with the CEO—and to look at opportunities and challenges from a broader perspective. Our new governance structure is now poised to provide long-term impact and meaning to the park and recreation field by offering a true platform for dialogue and debate over complex issues.
The new Board governance has brought a deeper meaning and value to Board service. Board members can now be resources for the CEO and senior managers. This Board’s passion for the mission—combined with their objectivity and knowledge—can provide incredibly valuable insights.
Steve Thompson brings to his Board leadership a range of professional roles and experiences spanning 37 years. He serves currently not only as NRPA Chair-elect, but also as the President of the Wisconsin Park and Recreation Association (WPRA). The two concurrent leadership positions allow Thompson a rare balance of state and national perspectives on parks and recreation during a time of unprecedented economic challenges for the field. While Thompson can point to a number of professional awards and service in many different leadership, teaching, and advisory capacities, he lists as career highlights his two terms on the NRPA Board, his election as WPRA president, and his current status as the first professional Chair-elect.