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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Private Funds, Public Parks

Dissecting Evansville Parks Foundation’s role in the city’s parks and recreation scene

The Evansville Parks Foundation has existed for more than 40 years, but many River City residents still are not familiar with it.

For starters, the foundation is a nonprofit agency, not a part of local government — meaning it is not funded or run by government officials. That’s a misconception that Executive Director Jill Trautvetter and Board of Directors President Kevin Axsom say they often correct.

But they point to foundation donations that helped advance recent city projects such as Deaconess Aquatic Center, Mickey’s Kingdom, Mesker Park Zoo exhibits, and the playscape at Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve.

Other foundation gifts, for items such as swimming lessons and baseball equipment, enable more residents to enjoy city park amenities, they say.

The foundation’s fundraising events consist of the Music in the Park summer series, which is free to attend but supported through sponsorships as well as a half-pot drawing; a spring event at Helfrich Golf Course; a pay-to-use parking lot at the West Side Nut Club Fall Festival; and an annual giving campaign late in the year.

Organizations interested in foundation dollars — including Evansville city government — can apply during grant cycles, Trautvetter and Axsom say. A grant cycle is open for applications through Oct. 1.

Maintenance of Evansville’s vast network of public parks has come under scrutiny of late, and it is detailed in a new five-year master plan for the Evansville Parks and Recreation Department.

Trautvetter says regular, ongoing park maintenance isn’t part of the foundation’s nonprofit mission or annual budget, but it “has been something we have helped with in the past. It’s a case-by-case basis.”

A recent solicitation letter from the foundation mentions swings, plastic landscaping border, and engineered wood fiber as examples of items it has supported at several city parks.

Foundation officials say they consider the foundation’s relationship with Evansville city government to be good, although Steve Schaefer, interim executive director of the Evansville Parks and Recreation Department, calls for a greater spirit of collaboration.

“There’s a lot of potential and opportunities that need to be seized upon,” Schaefer says. “The parks system needs a champion, and we’re willing to work with the foundation or any organization for the betterment of our parks.”

Evansville Parks Foundation board meetings are invite-only and closed to the public. In this respect, the foundation operates in the same manner as any other foundation or nonprofit entity, Trautvetter and Axsom say. They routinely invite guest speakers to meetings.

Trautvetter says the foundation has no obligation to fund any certain number of requests, and all are considered equally.

“We don’t typically fund overhead items — website design, consulting fees, membership fees, etc. It’s mostly items or programs that benefit a group in the community,” Trautvetter says.

The foundation’s 23-member board reviews applications in advance of its May and October meetings, where each one is discussed. The board then votes on which requests to fund.

Laurel Meny, a board member of the Evansville Parks Foundation, also is the executive director of the Parks Foundation in neighboring Warrick County, giving her a unique perspective on how both groups operate.

Both are nonprofit agencies and not part of local government, but Meny says comparing the two groups is difficult because Warrick County’s foundation, which was launched only four years ago, supports just Friedman Park and Scales Lake Park.

Warrick County’s foundation also benefits from a sense of enthusiasm surrounding Friedman Park, Meny says. The sprawling property near Newburgh opened in 2017.

Maintenance at the properties is funded by the Warrick County Parks Department, but the foundation provides supplemental support for projects that are needed but not in the county’s budget, Meny says.

Some of those needs are maintenance related. Meny says the Warrick Parks Foundation hired a landscaping company to help with tasks such as weeding and pruning, for example.

She says the foundation has purchased equipment and funded programs such as a scholarship for children to attend Scales Lake Summer Camp.

“It has been an easier task to raise money for these facilities,” Meny says. “They are new, they are at the top of people’s minds, and people are excited.”

Meny says the Evansville Parks Foundation does its job well, and Music in the Park has been a “fabulous” series of summer events.

But she says Evansville is challenged by its sheer number of park properties and the advanced age of many.

“I can’t imagine trying to make people who live around 60 parks happy, especially in the time we live in when fundraising is difficult,” she says.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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