Parks & Hypergrowth, Part 1

Editor's note: Mr. McDonald will take us on a tour of the burgeoning City of Maricopa, and how the newly-created Parks, Recreation and Libraries department is positioning itself to handle this growth and provide relevant and quality services. This series of articles comes at a fortuitous time in parks and recreation, as "hypergrowth", particularly in communities surrounding major metropolitan areas, has become a widespread phenomenon across North America.

The City of Maricopa is in the midst of tremendous hypergrowth, both a dream and challenge for any parks and recreation director.

Located 20 miles south of Phoenix, the City of Maricopa is one of the newest municipalities in the state of Arizona. Housing industry experts have determined that Maricopa is currently the fastest growing city in the nation based on the number of new single family home permits issued.

Through detailed planning and the development of strategic partnerships your parks and recreation department can help navigate the sometimes rocky slope of hypergrowth.

Historical Numbers

Historically speaking, Maricopa was known for farms and rail cars. The area settled into a slower pace as rail traffic was halted during the 1930s and diverted to the north.

Although agricultural production had been consistent through time, it became the catalyst when the rail service was cut. Increased mechanization of agriculture slowed the flow of people. However, it created a healthy farm economy that still thrives today.

Maricopa is one of the most productive farm communities in the state. Cotton, grains, fruit, vegetables, and beef thrive in this arid desert. But those same farms are giving way to tile roofs and 24-hour drugstores.

The City of Maricopa incorporated on October 15, 2003, after two-thirds of our town had been platted by Pinal County for residential development.

Our city encompasses 27 square miles and the majority of the development is residential with key areas set aside for industrial and commercial use.

While our current city limits are small, we have the intent to annex into our already established planning area approximately 268 square miles. Open space planning is a critical part of our general plan as our citizens are demanding a higher level of service.

The last official census showed Maricopa's population to be just over 1,492 residents in the year 2000. The City of Maricopa ordered a special census to determine our new population in 2004. The special census revealed a population of 4,998 residents of which 30 percent were under the age of 17 years.

By the time you read this, our population will have tripled to 15,000 new residents. Before we close the books on 2005, we'll eclipse the 20,000-resident mark. Incredibly, our growth rate is forecast to remain strong for the next ten years.

These are important numbers to understand because our humble Maricopa has morphed from a sleepy agricultural town into a bustling city expected to reach build-out in five years with an estimated 110,000 to 135,000 residents.

Our proposed planning area is estimated to house 350,000 people by the year 2025. Numbers don't lie nor should they intimidate. Instead, they can be your best friend when justifying additional costs and designing new facilities to accommodate the growth.

The Beginning

Maricopa is very fortunate to have a city council determined to provide plentiful open space and quality recreational amenities for our residents. City Manager Rick Buss and Councilman Kelly Haddad were major forces in addressing the need for open space and quality of life issues early on.

At the direction of the City Council, Councilman Haddad formed a Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee in January 2004 and I was selected along with six other residents to serve on this board.

After being appointed to this committee at the recommendation of City Manager Buss, the City Council authorized the inception of the PRL Department and my subsequent hiring as PRL Director in April 2004.

"We created a PRL department along with other city services for a number of reasons," Buss said. "First, the citizens demonstrated strong interest in PRL activities. Of the six transitional committees established, the PRL committee received the greatest number of applicants by far. Second, our demographics showed a large percentage of the population to be under the age of 17. Third, the geographic nature of the city is somewhat of an island and PRL-type of activities are roughly 30 minutes away in other cities. That is, the citizens desire PRL activities to be within close proximity. Fourth, there is a strong correlation between quality of life amenities and services (like PRL) and economic development."

The chance to build a department from scratch and construct facilities from the ground up is unique and an opportunity of a lifetime. It sounds like a cliché, but when someone hands you a blank sheet of paper it's exciting and the possibilities are endless. It's also very challenging.

As a new city, we currently do not have any facilities. Our local Rotary Chapter constructed a cement pool during the late 1950s adjacent to an acre-and-a-half green belt located next to a highway. Aside from the local school, these were the only two recreational elements available to residents of Maricopa for decades. Both facilities are still in use today.

"We wanted to create a parks and recreation department for two reasons: demand and timing; we didn't want to be behind the eight ball in terms facility and open space planning," Councilman Haddad commented. "

If we had waited any longer we would have spent a few (and unnecessary) years playing catch-up. I am so proud of this department and the accomplishments they've made over the past year."

Help the Builder Help You

Sometimes the public sector tends to point the proverbial finger of blame at the development community for building thousands of new homes, which can create an inverted relationship. The increase in population quickly raises the demand for quality recreation facilities. However, the funding available does not meet the need.

We incorporated with a limited job and tax base, which impacts our ability to provide quality of life amenities on the short-term basis. The City recently completed a development impact fee study and will begin collecting one-time revenues later this fall.

My belief is that parks and recreation directors and other key administrative personnel must embrace the developers. By establishing a clear cut and fair policy up front, developers can help reduce the cycle time of bringing a new park or facility on the drawing board to reality a lot faster.

That being said, let's not forget that development greatly benefits from these quality of life amenities. It raises the value of their product.

"It is important for developers and homebuilders to understand the potential impact of growth on municipalities and work proactively to assist municipalities in hypergrowth situations," noted Mike Jesberger of Element Homes. "It is equally important for the municipalities in these situations to do everything they can to get ahead of the development curve and set fair and consistent development policies to ensure that the builders are able to understand the scope of their responsibilities."

The City of Maricopa has spent the past year working with Mike Jesberger and Element Homes to possibly build the city's first park. It's a truly unique deal and indicative of a future trend in municipal finance/construction: public-private partnerships, which we'll highlight later.

Our first park will be approximately 18.8 acres in size with a 2.25 acre lake, two lighted ASA championship caliber softball fields, the first pair of lighted tennis courts in Maricopa, basketball courts, two playgrounds and a dedicated soccer field.

The park has an estimated price tag of $5.1 million when factoring in land acquisition costs, amenities, lake construction, mass grading and plan (architectural, engineering and landscape) work.

"Early on we identified the site as a potential public park site and felt it was our responsibility to explore this option with the city," Jesberger commented. "Its size (large enough for public amenities like softball) and location, (both within our project and within the greater boundaries of the city), were well suited for a public park. We were prepared develop it as a private park, but floated the idea to the city early on and found there was a high degree of interest because of the lack of public parks in the area. The big question was how to get a win-win deal done, given all the other needs of an emerging municipality."

The concept of a win-win deal is significant because it establishes a sound base for a good business relationship between both parties.

In our case, the City of Maricopa plans to purchase the land at not-to-exceed cost of $100,000 per acre. An appraisal will be ordered and if the value of the land comes in higher we'll only pay $100,000 per acre but if the value comes in lower we will pay that figure with a low-cap of $80,000 per acre.

Furthermore, Element Homes plans to donate all mass grading costs, all plan (architectural, engineering and landscape) work and all park amenities.

Essentially, we are paying $1.8 million for a $5.1 million park thanks to an innovative public-private partnership and a sizeable donation from Element Homes.

This is a prime example how municipalities can develop healthy and prosperous relationships with the development community.

"The city and Element Homes are on the cusp of an agreement that will save the city millions of dollars in capital outlays for the city's first park," Buss stated. "The city is highly appreciative of developers and builders that exhibit strong corporate citizenship."

Public Private Partnerships (P3s)

The biggest challenge currently facing the city is meeting the level of service demands new residents will require. We're in a unique situation because people are relocating from cities that have a defined parks and open space system. They are moving from cities that have multiple community pools, sportsplexes, abundant playgrounds, trails, general open space and other recreation outlets.

Maricopa has Rotary Park and Pool, and thanks to the new development, there are a few new tot lots popping out of the ground. But that's not enough and this is where identifying and forming strategic partnerships is critical.

In our case, we identified partnerships with local businesses, utility companies, home builders, general contractors and additional entities that can help support the parks and recreation department in key areas. This is where public-private partnerships (P3s) come into focus.

A Public-Private Partnership is a binding agreement between a public agency and a private sector entity that can create a benefit for the entire community to enjoy.

Through this agreement, the skills and assets of each sector are collectively used in delivering a facility (or service in some instances) for the use of the tax paying public.

Each party must share in the risks and rewards by joining forces and sharing the available inventory of skills and assets. If neither party is willing to share the risk and reward, your P3 will fail. For more information on P3s, please visit The National Council for Public-Private Partnerships at

There are four critical factors when creating your P3: political leadership, public sector involvement, a dedicated revenue stream (capital and maintenance and operation) and most importantly, a well-designed plan.

When municipalities enter into a P3 arrangement they must be selective of whom they partner with, commit to reducing the bureaucratic process, offer true incentives and use public resources appropriately. When the city owns the land, the public is the true controlling agent of the project.

The P3s we've created have resulted in a combined (monetary and in-kind) donation of $143,700 and sponsorship revenue of $21,025 for special events.

Those are amazing figures for a first year department in a city amidst hypergrowth.

We also worked with a local non-profit group that operated a 1,500 square foot library for 16 years on converting the facility to being operated by the City of Maricopa.

The non-profit group felt the city could do the library justice and provide the financial support to continue operations while working toward the construction of a new facility. The Maricopa Cultural Activity Center donated the facility and the surrounding land to the City of Maricopa in addition to 16,000+ books, tapes, DVDs and computer programs. The value of this donation was approximately $500,000.

Collaborative relationships, key planning and P3s have resulted in the PRL department generating $664,725 in revenue, gifts, grants and donations in fiscal year 2004-2005. When the donation made by Element Homes for our first park is included, the figure increases exponentially to an impressive $3,920,940 in revenue, gifts, grants and donations.

Volunteers Are Critical

Our PRL Department is modeled after a simple theory: staff light, partner heavy. Volunteers have been an integral part of our success over the past year because of limited staff.

None of our efforts would have come to fruition if we didn't have local residents volunteering their time to give back to the community. Residents have logged 276 hours performing community service and 658 hours helping to staff various special events we have hosted.

In this time of municipal budget cuts and in some instances, financial crisis, reaching out to the community at large to help staff your events is one the best strategic decisions any agency can make.

We've engaged the public to help plan events such as the Maricopa Salsa Festival (, Founder's Day and Holiday Homes on Parade.

Because of the level of involvement, our volunteers have developed a sense of ownership and pride in both the event and the community. The public support we have is tremendous and makes me proud to serve as the director of the fastest-growing municipality in the United States.

In the next article we'll discuss open space planning, the Maricopa Trail System (a proposed 38-mile closed loop trail system throughout the city) and other exciting ideas.

Marty McDonald is Director of Parks, Recreation and Libraries for the City of Maricopa, Ariz., and can be reached at