Master Plans

Editor’s Note : This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.

Soon after assuming a post in municipal government 12 years ago, I was introduced to the master planning process. Today, I find it difficult to operate in a contemporary local government without a master plan.

The first master plan was a great example of what a plan shouldn’t be-- I’ll withhold the names to protect the guilty. It was unstructured, simplistic and devoid of any detail or budget information. I didn’t know exactly what a master plan was supposed to look like, but I strongly suspected this wasn’t it.

However, it was enough to engage my curiosity, so I started to research the idea. I was finishing my master’s in public administration at the time, and took a couple of courses on municipal planning. I was able to interact with professors who had been practitioners and could produce a quality master plan over morning coffee. I learned as much talking with them as from reading books.

An Emerging Pattern

As land use and development plans became more prevalent and necessary, master planning at a community level was introduced. The original intent was to direct the orderly and attractive pattern of land use, to ensure sensible transportation routes and, yes, to achieve an adequate system of parks and recreation areas.

Every parks and recreation operation--no matter how small--needs a master plan. Polling these departments nationally to see how many have a plan would be interesting.

Our master plan began in 1998 as a result of discussions with our recreation commission. One of the members was a retired Army officer, and with his background, cited the need for a plan. The rest of the commission agreed, so off we went.

On-The-Job Learning

At first I was reluctant. It was one more thing in a way-too-big pile of things to do. At the time, only a rudimentary plan for parks and recreation existed, so the members were starting nearly from scratch.

As a result, the first several months were spent figuring out how to approach the mission, gathering demographic information, figuring the best way to survey the user groups and exploring other preliminary tasks. Eventually, we got the information but weren’t quite sure how to use it.

During this time, I managed to put funding into my budget for a master plan consultant. So, we developed a Request for Proposals (RFP) that included a scope of services detailing what we wanted as the end product. We received proposals from several interested firms and hired one.

The first experience with a planning consultant wasn’t the best. To make a long story short, he had a cookie-cutter approach that didn’t take into account specific issues in our situation. The final plan was slightly better but still didn’t meet our expectations.

To make the story even shorter, it took several years with only marginally better results until we finally hired a reputable firm to help us. Those planners took the time to find out what we reallyneeded and why we needed it. It was still a grueling task that took several months, but it was so much easier with an experienced planner guiding us.

We finally have a plan to be proud of, and due to its unique structure, we can update it annually on our own. The planner devised a “tool kit” containing all the material necessary to work through the process on our own, thus saving money.

Why do a master plan? First and foremost, it becomes the cornerstone for budgeting. If done correctly, it validates requirements and helps decision-makers clearly understand how priorities were arrived at. We use results of our master planning process to roll projects into the city’s Capital Improvement Plan.

The Art Of Planning

Here’s generally how our process works: After several months of public workshops with user groups and a survey, we present our plan during a joint city council-recreation commission public workshop. We define goals and objectives for the upcoming five years and share insights gained from the preparatory work. This gives the council a chance to include members’ thoughts before the plan is finalized, and gives us guidance to ensure the plan is in line with other city priorities.

Another step we take during the process is to coordinate with the planning department to ensure that the Master Recreation Plan becomes an integral part of the city’s Comprehensive Plan.

The most productive part of the master plan process is the process itself. Taking time to listen to all user groups, the general public and decision makers, we gain in-depth knowledge of the many facets involved in providing a balanced parks and recreation program. The plan almost puts itself together.

Being reviewed annually, this plan becomes a “living document” that does not collect dust on a shelf for five years. It guides our focus and budget process for each fiscal year. It keeps the material fresh, and ensures we stay current with the rapid changes occurring in local government. Above all, the public knows its voices are being heard and are being served the best and newest recreation programs.

So what kind of success stories--or horror stories--do you have with master plans? Write, call, or e-mail me or the magazine, and share your experiences!

Randy Gaddo is Director of Leisure Services (parks, recreation and library) in Peachtree City, Ga. He can be reached at (770) 631-2542, or via e-mail at