These are tough financial times for cities around the country, including Santa Fe. Many businesses are closed or operating at reduced capacity. Tax revenues are down. Cities are cutting back on programs, reducing some employees’ hours and laying off others.
One of the programs hit hard by this belt-tightening in many cities, including Santa Fe, has been the Parks and Recreation Department. I have been communicating with some of the department managers about problems I have noticed and have learned the department is struggling to maintain 79 parks, over 100 miles of trails and 500 medians with a staff of just two dozen people. The situation was bad before the pandemic but is much worse now.
Now, in addition to long-standing problems like badly faded trail signs, rusting trash cans made from old oil drums and the yearlong closure of the Salvador Perez Pool and Recreation Center, there are a host of other problems that Parks and Recreation is struggling to address. These include weeds in parks, limited facility hours, shopping carts and other litter dotting trail-side arroyos.
Officials in some cities believe Parks and Recreation is an area where cuts can be made without many people noticing the effects. Other officials believe Parks and Recreation is a frill that is unimportant, especially during a pandemic. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As someone who uses Santa Fe’s urban trails almost every day, I know our parks and trails have rarely been as busy as they were this summer. Similarly, the Genoveva Chavez Community Center has been busy since it reopened. I have repeatedly struggled to make a reservation to use the facility, my calls often rebuffed by busy signals. When businesses are closed and people are working fewer hours, they have more time to use trails, parks and recreation facilities. If anything, we should be increasing funding to better meet the increased demand.
In New Mexico, about a third of the population is considered obese, a serious risk for COVID-19 complications. In addition to eating more fruits and vegetables, one of the most important changes we can make is to exercise more. Parks, trails and recreation facilities are excellent places to get more exercise.
During the coronavirus pandemic, one of the safest places to be is outdoors. While the parks and trails have been busier than usual, it is usually easy to keep a safe distance from other people. Meanwhile, steps have been taken to make the Chavez Center safer for patrons. These include closing the locker rooms, screening patrons and limiting occupancy. To help fight COVID-19, we should invest not only in personal protective equipment and testing, but also in our parks and recreation facilities to better accommodate residents wanting to get in better shape just in case they become infected.
Investing in Parks and Recreation will help the local economy recover faster when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us — that’s true even if the parks division is operated through the Public Works Department and recreation is run separately, as a new reorganization envisions. After all, Santa Fe is a tourist town. Our parks, trails and recreation facilities are the public face of Santa Fe. Tourists and locals don’t want to see weedy medians, either.
By investing more in parks and recreation, we are striving to meet the increased demand of residents. We are also helping to strengthen the health of our residents during a pandemic. Finally, we are assuring a faster and stronger economic recovery after the crisis is over. Parks and recreation deserves to be a priority — now more than ever.
Dan Frazier is a small-business owner and former journalist who lives in south Santa Fe.