Privatization in Seattle’s Other Parks

In addition to the attempted land grab in Volunteer Park, several other Seattle parks are threatened by City proposals to hand over parkland to a private capital investor. Here we discuss a few of these, and direct you to the local watchful activists. Maybe your own neighborhood has a similar situation we don’t know about? Email pvpinfo@protectvolunteerpark.org.

At the end of this article, we describe why we call this “privatization” and why we don’t like private capital in the parks.

Evans Pool and Community Center (Green Lake)

The City has failed to spend Park District funds allocated for major maintenance at Evans Pool and Community Center. It now proposes that a non-profit organization operate the facility and provide capital funds to replace the building.

Jefferson Park (Beacon Hill)

Two years after the opening of the new golf clubhouse, and without public involvement, the city decided it wants to use Jefferson Park land to build a new youth golf clubhouse, and issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking private capital. The RFP is clearly targeted toward a single organization, First Tee of Greater Seattle, whose executive director is former City Council member Heidi Wills. The Jefferson Park Lawn Bowling Club is being pressured to share its space and facilities.

(Update: First Tee’s board of directors includes Debora Juarez, who is a different person from Debora Juarez the current City Council parks chair.)

Lakewood and Leschi Marinas

At Lakewood and Leschi marinas, the city failed to spend $4 million that was set aside for emergency repairs in 2014, and now wants to use those funds to sweeten the deal for a private capital investor, Foss Waterway Management.

Why do we call it “Privatization”?

One might ask, since these park lands and facilities would remain owned by the city, why call it “privatization”? There are two separate parts of this:

Operating agreements: The City might partner with a private organization to operate City facilities, or operate programs in City facilities. For example, the nonprofit Associated Recreation Council (ARC) operates programs at Parks facilities citywide. Some would call this privatization, but we would not use that term as long as the operating agreement is fair to the public. ARC makes several types of cash payments to the City to support the maintenance of facilities, including a percentage of all user fees. Rather, we would reserve the term “privatization” for:

Capital funds: This is the big one. We at Protect Volunteer Park are opposed to the use of private capital to develop facilities in Seattle parks. Private capital does not come for free; its owners will expect a tangible return. One way or another, the public will pay. It may be higher user fees, or operating agreements which do not favor the City, or public parklands being managed according to the preferences of the capital providers rather than the public.

Here you can see where Volunteer Park figures into it. In 1933 the City accepted a museum building built using private capital, which was turned over to the public to maintain and keep the lights on, with the operator providing public benefits (free admission four days per week). It looked like a good deal at the time. But capital is not value-neutral, nor does it share our values as a city. Capital has rich, influential owners who will use their power to make sure their capital produces the maximum return.

So now after 84 years, we have seen Public Benefits Cut, Public Spending Maintained. We still manage this City property as if for the benefit of its original donor, we pay SAM to operate there, we have given away 93% of the free admission days that used to be provided, and SAM can still convert a publicly voted renovation project into an expansion project, get Mayor Murray’s promise for an extra $10 million from the city, and hold itself exempt from the public involvement policy which applies to Seattle Parks’ property.

(Also, SAM moved downtown and the City guaranteed repayment of $45 million in bonds to build SAM’s new facility, but at Volunteer Park the public is also still on the hook for continued financial support of SAM’s former home. The $45 million guarantee counts against the City’s borrowing limit, which means $45 million less for other City priorities. SAM has leased 8 of the 12 downtown floors to Nordstrom Inc. until 2031, but the Seattle public is still helping finance the entire building.)

Seattle Art Museum has 70 trustees (PDF), powerful people who are fully engaged in advancing the institution’s interests. The SAM executive director makes $503,000 (almost 3 times the mayor’s salary) and SAM has additionally hired an employee to seek approval for the Asian Art Museum renovation and expansion project as a “Senior Advisor to the Director”. At Volunteer Park a city-owned but privately capitalized building is backed by a powerful campaign to shape city policy toward SAM’s objectives.

If we bring more private capital into Seattle parks, we can expect to see similar behavior from its owners, working to serve the interests of their capital investment at public cost. Or worse; proposals such as at Evans Pool would give the private capital investor long-term operating agreements, so they would have a stronger position than SAM has at its Volunteer Park facility. SAM has no rights at the Asian Art Museum building except the 1933 agreement, which either party can terminate with 3 years notice. But the SAM trustees can still agree to act entitled to the building and use their political influence as if it were SAM’s property.

Is a nonprofit private or public?

Sometimes people are unsure whether a nonprofit organization should be considered public or private. We view nonprofit organizations as private, the same as for-profit companies. It is just a different financial structure: no profits, but a federal tax exemption granted to donors. The leadership of a nonprofit is unelected and unaccountable to the public, only to the IRS and to the people it hopes will donate money or volunteer.

By Jonathan Mark and Protect Volunteer Park. If you have any comments, please email pvpinfo@protectvolunteerpark.org.