Fresno’s parks are still nearly at the bottom. What can be done?

New park scores are out, and while Fresno improved, it’s not by much.

Fresno still lands in the bottom 10 of the 97 largest U.S. cities ranked by the Trust for Public Lands, which assesses park access, acreage, investment and amenities.

Fresno’s score this year is 92, up two spots from 94.

“The ParkScore is a painful but important reminder of the work that still needs to be done,” said Elliott Balch, the chief operating officer of the Central Valley Community Foundation and a member of the Fresno for Parks coalition. “Our parks need help, and incremental approaches will only rob another generation of kids and families of the great park system they deserve.”

The city this year improved on the assessment for park access, meaning 67 percent of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. That score is up by about five points. Part of the reason that category improved for Fresno is because the Trust for Public Lands used a new walkable streets network to assess that factor, said Charlie McCabe, director of the Center for City Park Excellence.

Fresno’s parks ranked low in amenities, notably in the categories of restrooms and community or senior centers.

Fresno doesn’t have a senior center. Last year, the Fresno City Council set aside money during budget hearings for a senior center, but it’s still not enough. Council Member Paul Caprioglio, who represents District 4 in central-east Fresno, also has made it his mission to build a community center in his district.

Fresno’s park rank also suffered because of the low dollar amount per resident the city invests in parks — currently at $37.

Other California cities that landed in the top third of the rankings included San Francisco, San Diego, Long Beach, Sacramento and San Jose.

McCabe said the Measure P ballot measure was a good sign for Fresno parks. Measure P on Fresno’s 2018 ballot proposed a 3/8-cent sales tax that would’ve generated $37.5 million annually for 30 years for Fresno parks and cultural arts. Measure P received about 52 percent “yes” votes, falling short of the two-thirds majority the city said it needed to pass. The threshold to pass Measure P is currently being debated in court.

“A big thing that makes park systems get more funding is strong support from the public,” he said. “You have a strong base of support from the public who worked really, really hard on a variety of issues. That’s only going to build. Elected officials pay attention to public support and where they voice concern.”

Sandra Celedon, executive director and president of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, agreed with McCabe, saying community advocacy for better parks is beginning to pay off. She said there’s three things the city can take action on to improve its park score: hire a full-time parks director, allocate more money from the budget to parks, and implement Measure P.

Councilwoman Esmeralda Soria, a stalwart Measure P supporter, said while there was movement in a positive direction on the ranking, it’s not good enough for celebration.

“Our residents deserve better. I continue to be committed to find additional investments through the budget, as well as outside resources to improve the quality of life for all our residents through new and renovated park amenities,” she said.

The top position leading Fresno’s Parks, After school, Recreation and Community Services (PARCS) department has seen much turnover in the last five years. In 2017, Manuel Mollenedo retired, and then-City Manager Bruce Rudd filled the position on an interim basis. Then in 2018 Parvin Neloms Jr. filled the position. But earlier this year, Neloms mysteriously left the post and TJ Miller is filling in as interim.

“A clear indication the city is serious about addressing the needs of the park system would be hiring a competent and qualified permanent parks director with the vision and commitment to implement the parks master plan,” Celedon said.

Mayor Lee Brand said there’s plans to do just that, but there’s no timeline on when that could happen.

Brand said it’s a hard department to lead. “It’s a tough job,” he said. “You’re trying to take over a department that’s fundamentally underfunded.… In that climate I could see why it’s challenging.”

After campaigning against Measure P, Brand vowed to bring the opposing sides together to work on a compromise ballot initiative for 2020 that will benefit both parks and public safety. So far, Brand has held three meetings this year. He said it will be no easy task to get the sides on the same way, but he’s encouraged by the progress made so far.

The city also is hoping to leverage Prop. 68 money, and currently money from Prop. 68 is being used for reconstruction at Quigley Park, improvements and renovations at Radio Park and a new park at Church Avenue and Orangewood Drive.

Brand this week just unveiled his proposed 2020 budget, which includes a 4.6 percent increase in the PARCS budget. The PARCS budget increased from $21 million in fiscal year 2017 to $32 million for fiscal year 2020, Brand noted.

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Brianna Calix covers politics and investigations for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.