A Plan With Legs

By Kurtis Baumgartner

Your agency’s dog park is nearing completion, and the grand opening for the new community gem is on the horizon. What felt like an eternity ago isn’t just quietly sneaking up on you; it’s banging down the door. Luckily, you had the forethought to put together a foolproof plan to ensure the park operates in an efficient, safe, and sustainable manner.

Careful planning—sometimes over a matter of years—is imperative in ensuring a project goes off without a hitch, and an operations plan is one of the most important steps. Operations plans provide clear objectives, standards, staffing requirements, timetables, and processes for evaluating progress.

In early fall of 2015, Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation (CCPR) in Indiana launched the Central Bark Park with the help of a detailed operations plan that allowed the department to avoid many of the pitfalls that other organizations have experienced. CCPR gathered national benchmark data from comparable industry-leading park and recreation agencies with high cost recovery, National Gold Medal-winning agencies, and nationally accredited agencies. Additionally, the department completed an analysis of local dog parks in the Indianapolis metropolitan area to gather pertinent information on membership fees, ID requirements, park size, rules, amenities, maintenance standards, sponsorships, and potential obstacles.

Taking the time to perform this benchmarking provided clarity with regards to some of the biggest potential problems that could arise, and allowed the department to plan ahead to avoid those.  Topics such as membership selection, quality turf maintenance, and cleaning up after pets became focal points of the operations plan. 

Membership Selection
Carmel, Ind., is consistently ranked as one of the best places to live in the country. A major contributor to the accolades has been the community’s transformation into a walkable, bike-friendly, culture-filled model of the great European cities. Carmel is proof that alternative transportation can be a key driver of the overall livability of a community.

Since a main goal for the Central Bark Park was to encourage members to walk to the park and drive as little as possible, membership selection was based on a combination of proximity to the park and Carmel/Clay residency. Another factor in member selection was the size of the Central Bark Park (2 acres), so limiting the number of memberships was necessary to avoid overcrowding  and reduce excessive foot traffic, which would damage turf. Through the benchmarking process, it was decided that 250 dogs was an adequate starting number, with possible expansion to 300 dogs in the future. 

To ensure that each applicant had a fair opportunity to become one of the park’s inaugural members, the operations plan provided an online application process. Upon submission, staff manually researched address information to record actual distances from the park. Selected members were then invited to participate in a one-day registration celebration, where they received a welcome packet that included a park-access key fob, identification tags for each dog, rules, and other pertinent material and freebies. 

Maintaining Quality Turf
Maintaining beautiful green turf was a difficulty noted by many of the benchmark agencies. Factors such as over-use, pet waste, and lack of a routine maintenance schedule contributed to deterioration of greenspace. 

To keep the turf in impeccable shape, the operations plan accounted for three different types of park closures:

·         Weekly lawn care (mowing, edging)

·         Annual maintenance (over-seeding, aerating, fertilizing)

·         Weather-related closures.

 Regularly scheduled lawn care is clearly communicated in new member on-boarding and posted within the park rules. Annual maintenance information is sent to members via email, along with temporary signage at the park. Weather-related closures are noted through the departmental weather hotline, and signage at the park. Getting new owners acclimated to these types of closures from the onset helps the department appropriately maintain the turf by ensuring preventative maintenance and protection from overuse. During any scheduled or unscheduled park closure, the member’s key fob is inactivated through access-control software.  

Doggy DNA
All the benchmark agencies had similar complaints regarding the time and financial resources expended cleaning up after irresponsible owners. Each agency had a different means of solving its “poo problem.”

Pet waste isn’t just an annoyance (Consumer Reports lists it as #6 on America’s Top Gripes); it is a health hazard as well. When the droppings wash into lakes, rivers, and streams, a host of bacteria goes with the poo. Information released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that waste is one way by which zoonotic diseases pass from pets to humans. Other pathogens, including roundworms and their eggs, can survive in the soil for several years, and can be transferred to other pets and humans. Anyone gardening, playing sports, or walking barefoot is at risk, but children are the most vulnerable. Dog waste is no longer just an irritation—it is globally recognized as a danger. 

The Central Bark Park resides in a known flood plain, and although a high-tech filtration system was installed, taking extra precautions to ensure that the water supply remained unscathed was imperative. To address the problem of owners not cleaning up after their pets, the operations plan recommended utilizing modern technology to implement mandatory DNA testing for registered Central Bark Park users, with fines assessed to the offending owners.

During the one-day registration celebration, owners were required to perform a simple, non-invasive cheek swab on their pet. Swabs were then sent to a partnering vendor that assigned each dog a unique code linked to its genetic profile. In the event that pet waste was discovered at the Central Bark Park, samples would be collected and submitted for DNA processing, and pet owners would be fined accordingly.   

One Year In
Completing a thoughtful operations plan prior to opening has proven worthwhile. By taking the time, dedicating the resources, and then implementing and executing the plan, the Central Bark Park has avoided the pitfalls identified by benchmark agencies. It is regarded as one of the most well-maintained, sought-after dog parks in Central Indiana. Member surveys indicate that 98 percent of users of the park are extremely satisfied, and the lengthy wait list denotes that demand to gain membership is still strong. While Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation has been open for a year and successful, operation plans are an ongoing commitment and require staff to evaluate and analyze the processes and procedures regularly. 

Kurtis Baumgartner, CPRP, is the director of the Monon Community Center for Carmel Clay Parks & Recreation. He managed the successful opening of the community’s first dog park in August 2015. He also chaired the Dog Park Advisory Committee and provided direct oversight of the membership selection process as well as the fees that included DNA testing. Reach him at kbaumgartner@carmelclayparks.com.