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RICHMOND'S MONROE PARK : THE CHARTER PARK

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The long simmering debate over the future of Richmonds 7.5 acre Monroe Park has entered a new phase. Mayor Dwight Jones has announced a plan to hand over control of the park to a 12 member corporate board. The city would come up with $3million for improvements.

Alice Massie, head of the Monroe Park Advisory Committee(MPAC), said in a Richmond Times Dispatch article that she could raise another $3million from corporate donors in nine months.

The transfer would be similiar to a charter school. In a charter school , the public school system hands over day to day control to a corporate board. In essence, this is what the Mayor is proposing for Monroe Park.

The Mayor has created a new public-private entity for Richmond. Call it the Charter Park.

The Charter Park has its critics. Local political figure, Paul Goldman, questioned the legality of the City transferring ownership to a private corporation. Goldman said in a opinion piece for TV station WTVR that the transfer might violate the Virginia state Constitution.

It also goes to a fundamental question of society. To what extent should a private company be allowed to run a public trust ?

Advocates for the Homeless say the Charter Park concept is just a way to remove the Homeless from the park. Monroe Park is home to several feeding programs run by churches and the secular activist Food Not Bombs.

Activists and civil libertarians feel that a Charter Park will usurp the legal rights of dissident groups who often use the park for rallies,demonstrations and marches.

The right of center Richmond Times Dispatch editorial page has opined that the Charter Park machinations by the Mayor lacked transparency.

There is one bit of agreement among all parties . Monroe Park needs repairs and upgrades to its infrastructure. Maintence people complain that pipes and other lines underneath the ground are a nightmare in need of modernization. Trees need to be trimmed, grass grown, old greenery put out. New tech toys like WiFi need to be introduced.

In 2010, plans were introduced to shut down the park for repairs. A fence was to be built around the park to keep people out. Homeless advocates , in March of 2011, moved into the park as a protest against shutting down homeless feeding programs. The occupation ended with 9 arrests.

In October of 2011, Occupy Richmond was thwarted by the police from taking over Monroe Park.

From 2011 until December of 2013, a period of two years, there was no money in the City coffers to afford a $6 million do over for the newly created Charter Park. The fence nor the improvements happened.Suddenly, the Mayor comes up with $3million while Alice Massie promises $3million in nine months from corporate donors.

The Monroe Park fight is not the first in a series of fights over public spaces in Richmond. The Washington Redskins, second richest pro football team, was handed a sweetheart deal for public land space last summer. There is a controversy over development in Shockoe Bottom over a minor league baseball system.

The Charter Park controversy is not new to Richmond. Municipalities all over the country have wrestled with the private corporate influnce over open space.

In 1961, New York City, offered tax breaks to developers to build open spaces in their designs. Today there are 550 private public parks. The most famous of these was Zucotti Park, home of Occupy Wall St.

However, in 2000 and 2008, studies of these corporate spaces showed serious problems with 40% of them. Many had no access for the public they were supposed to accomadate.Others were connected to abandoned buildings and fell into disrepair.

In the 1980s, San Francisco began a program similiar to New York's. The corporate influnce there has been challenged by a activist group, Take Back Our Parks.

So how far and wide will the Charter Parks movement go ? Could we see control of National Parks like Yellowstone or state parks slip from public control to corporate control?

Parks 2.0 thinks it is a possibility. Parks 2.0 is a research project of the Reason Foundation. The Reason Foundation is partially financed by the Koch Brothers with one Koch brother on the Board.

In a paper, Parks 2.0 , says the private sector can take over control of the parks due to state budget woes. Parks 2.0 promises lower labor costs, more efficiency and of course private property.

But all those savings may come with a price tag for the collective soul.

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