Washington Park Profile: Play For Pay Policy Passed

Following years of contentious debate, and an equally impassioned
public hearing, the Parks and Recreation Department Advisory Board
voted Aug. 12 to approve a new policy that would allow the city to
close off areas of some Denver parks to allow special events to take
place which would require a paid admission.

The vote was divided 10-7.

(This story, “Play For Pay Policy Passed For Public Parks By 10-7
Vote,” by Paul Kashmann, is published in the September edition of
Washington Park Profile newspaper. This story is used with
permission.)

The bill covers Denver’s eight Festival Sites – City Park, Civic
Center Park, Confluence Park, Parkfield Park (after construction),
Ruby Hill Park, Skyline Park, Sloans Lake, and Stapleton Central Park
– as well as designated Event Facility Permit Sites and Special
Occasion Permit Sites.

Public attendance at admission based events at Festival sites will be
limited to a maximum of 7,500 people at the three largest locations,
“or the maximum carrying capacity of the site” per day. No event can
exceed four days (including setup and teardown) in a month’s time, and
there must be at least a five-day gap between single day events in a
park, and 12 days between events of two days or more in duration. No
event can occupy “more than 20 percent of a contiguous area … or 5
contiguous acres, whichever size is smaller.”

The smaller Event Facility Permit Sites and Special Occasion Permit
Sites will allow no more than four single-day admission based events
in any 30-day period, with attendance limited to the site capacity.

Parks spokesperson Jill McGranahan said that in order for any new
park to be added to any of those lists, there is a public involvement
process to which Parks and Recreation must adhere, and, “any paid
event that wants to serve alcohol, will have to go before Excise &
Licenses, which provides another opportunity for public comment.”

The Admission Based Special Events Policy Task Force (ABSEP) had been
considering the topic for the past two years.While the direction from
the city was to craft a policy by which the Manager of Parks &
Recreation could administer such events, a number of ABSEP members and
many local neighborhood groups opposed the concept of pay-to-play in
area parks, believing it was in violation of the letter and spirit of
the City Charter, and poor land use policy.

Joe Halpern is a resident of the Alamo Placita neighborhood. Halpern
believes admission based events “contradict the longstanding principle
that Denver’s public parks have always been, and should remain, free
and open to all citizens, regardless of their financial means.” He
objects to closing any portion of a Denver park, as “Denver’s ratio of
parks to population has consistently slipped, so … our parks system
ranks well below the average size reported by similarly dense cities,
(such as) Phoenix, San Diego and Houston.”

City Councilman Doug Linkhart told the Advisory Board that, “My focus
is on the principle. It’s possible to have something going in one of
these parks every Saturday night. Parks are for the public, not for
profit. The money (the city will take in) is probably barely enough to
compensate DPR for required maintenance. Believe me, this is not going
to save the (city) budget.”

Hoping to assuage fears of constant paid event traffic in the parks,
DPR Manager Kevin Patterson stated that permitting priorities will go
first to grandfathered events that have a history with the city, then
to non-profit events, and finally to admission based events. He stated
that events will not be scheduled when a park has construction or
maintenance work planned or needs to “rest” due to overuse.

David Broadwell of the Denver City Attorney’s office told the Profile
that from its drafting in 1904 to the early 1980s, the charter clearly
stated that “No portion of any park now belonging to or hereafter
acquired by the City and County shall be … leased at any time …”

In 1983, the provision against leasing park land was cracked open with
the addition of the phrase “except for concession leases and leases to
charitable or not-for-profit organizations or other governmental
jurisdictions.” Should the city decide to enter into any such
agreement, the charter declared that “all such leases and any
subleases shall require the approval of (City) Council.”

In 1996 the provision for leasing park land was broadened further,
adding that they might be entered into with “approval of a majority of
those registered electors voting in an election.” Council could still
approve leases to concessionaires, non-profits and governmental
entities.

While opponents to the new policy object to what they view as a change
in interpretation of the charter, Broadwell said, “I’ve heard this
anecdotally from people, but we’ve gone through past decisions (from
previous city attorneys) and have found nothing indicating such a
change.

“I understand philosophically and policy-wise why people might not
want their parks used (for admission-based events). I totally get
that. But as an attorney I don’t see anything in the charter that says
you can’t allow someone to occupy a portion of the park to make
money.”

Councilwoman Peggy Lehmann supports the change. “We have a history of
paying to use park land. Overland Park had auto racing years ago. City
Park had movies and racing. Broadway Park had baseball. The world is
changing. Young people think it’s a great idea. It’s a generational
issue. And it’s only to be tried in eight parks out of 231.”

Sloans Lake resident Larry Ambrose is a member of the ABSEP Task
Force. He is “in favor of admission based events in a festival park”
that would be built for the sole purpose of holding such activities.
“It’s direly needed,” said Ambrose. “We’ve outgrown Civic Center for
Taste of Colorado and Cinco de Mayo.” He also is concerned that too
much power is being given to the Manager of DPR. “What would we lose
by having a vote (on the admission based events policy)?

Broadwell’s belief that the charter does not forbid pay-to-play park
events, hinges on his interpretation of the words “lease,” and
“concessionaire.”

“Is it a lease, a permit, a license? These words are used in different
context throughout the charter,” said Broadwell. “And let’s say for
argument that (admission based events) constitute a lease. The charter
allows a lease to a concessionaire. We know the guy who runs the
restaurant at City Park is a concessionaire, but what about the guy
who wants to fence off part of the park to put on an event?”

In search of definition for the term “lease”, Broadwell refers to
section 3.2.6 of the charter which states, “The term ‘lease’ shall
include all agreements, permits, contracts, licenses, easements or
other instruments whereby the City grants the exclusive use of all or
a portion of real property now or hereafter owned by the City for an
indefinite period of time or for a specific period in excess of thirty
(30) days.”

To further support the city’s position, he points to section 2.4.4 of
the charter, which states that “The following duties and powers are
hereby vested exclusively in the Department of Parks and
Recreation: … in the manner and pursuant to terms and conditions
fixed by the Mayor’s cabinet, to grant or refuse the license or
privilege of operating concessions in or of selling goods and services
in all parks and recreational facilities.”

Darrell Watson chaired the Advisory Board at the decisive August
meeting. He was unmoved by the proponents’ claims. “I am voting
against this extraordinary change in park usage. I do not believe the
Manager of Parks and Recreation should be (in charge) of such a grand
change. The benefits (of the new policy) are inconsequential. I am
underwhelmed by the information DPR has provided.”

McGranahan expects the new policy to be implemented sometime in
November, when the city begins allocating permits for next year’s park
events begins.

For information, visit www.denvergov.org/parks . Those wishing to voice
opposition to the policy should contact www.parksareforpeople.org.

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