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July 11th, 2001 PHILIP DAWDY | News Stories
 

Rose City Slugger

Last week, Charles Jordan ducked a political beanball. But Portland's King of the Parks is still swinging for the fences.

     
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SIDEBARS: A Park's Place / Pay To Play / The Cost of Fun in Four CitiesCharles Jordan spent the weekend before July 4 mulling over an impending danger: A political curveball was breaking toward his head.

A former city commissioner and mayoral aspirant, Jordan, 63, doesn't fancy hitting the dirt. He's 6 feet 7 inches tall and has been a fixture of Portland public life for much of the last three decades. Now, the director of the Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation was about to get creamed over a youth sports fee he'd proposed.

So last week, he quickly ducked, abandoning the fee during a July 5 meeting with his critics. "You've got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them," he says. "That's one thing I've always been good at."

Still, the dust-up over the fees comes at a terrible time for Jordan and the bureau he's led for 12 years. This Thursday, Jordan will unveil the bureau's strategic plan for the next 20 years, a plan that will largely determine the future not only of the city's parks but of Jordan himself.

In some ways the fee fight, rife with doomsday rhetoric, was blown far out of proportion to its impact. But it pushed to the surface a seeming inconsistency.

The parks bureau is no longer just the agency that inflates volleyballs and cuts the ballfield grass. It now provides piano primers for preschoolers, cooking tutorials for adolescents, hip-hop instruction for teens, water aerobics for expectant moms and golf lessons for senior citizens. It has 150 miles of trails and 6,681 acres of natural areas. Last month, it inherited the maintenance of the $30 million East Bank Esplanade, and in October it becomes responsible for a $3.8 million park in a neighborhood virtually devoid of children (see "A Park's Place" sidebar, page 23).

The Great Sandlot Insurrection of '01 may have been quelled for the moment, but it floated a question that lingers longer than pine tar on a Louisville Slugger: Can the parks bureau continue to be everything to all people without sacrificing its core mission?

As he dusted himself off from last week's brushback, Jordan could have played it safe. But Portland's parks director isn't one who easily lowers his expectations. When he appears before City Council later this week, Joltin' Jordan will make it clear that he wants to take one more swing for the fences.

This summer's fee fight sprang from a $403,000 hole in the park bureau's budget, a sight that to Jordan was déjà vu all over again. Parks is one of the city's three general-fund bureaus (along with the police and fire bureaus), meaning that the lion's share of its funding comes directly from property taxes and the business income tax. But taxes are not a growth industry--property tax caps and a flat economy have seen to that.

Jordan's budget ($62.5 million for the current fiscal year) hasn't kept pace with the cost of patching up old facilities such as University Park and Wilson Pool and operating community centers such as the one in Sellwood.

As a result, Jordan has increasingly relied on user fees. In the past five years, user fees and permits have almost doubled, from $4.6 million in 1996 to $8.6 million this year. Adult sports leagues and sports lesson fees for all ages have been frequently tapped. Just two years ago, for example, it cost $27.50 for one week of youth swimming classes; now, it's $32.50, an 18-percent increase.

After more than a decade of shielding youth sports leagues from such fee hikes, Jordan says he had no choice. He was staring at a $168,000 shortfall directly related to what was being spent on youth sports. He needed $83,000 for basic maintenance costs such as mowing the grass on ballfields. He was short another $85,000 to pay Portland Public Schools for use of school ballfields.

Jordan had to make up the money someplace: Either tack fees onto programs for seniors and the disabled or go after youth sports. He chose the latter.

With 21,000 participants, youth sports leagues such as Little League, Babe Ruth Baseball and the Portland Youth Soccer Association dominate action on parks ballfields throughout the spring, summer and fall. Leagues charge each player a registration fee (ranging from $35 to $75, depending on the sport) to cover equipment, national association dues and parks permit fees. The eight-team Grant Babe Ruth League, for example, pays the bureau $980 for annual field permits.

Jordan proposed either tacking on a $2- to $5-per-player fee or charging teams for playing time on city fields.

He may as well have taken batting practice in a church, for the outcry immediately took on overtones of a Holy War. "They could end the league as we know it," said Mike Sturgeon, commissioner of Babe Ruth Baseball for Northern Oregon.

Sturgeon, a lawyer with all the subtlety of a beanball, rallied coaches and parents, at one point threatening a youth march on City Hall.

Jordan had anticipated some controversy, but not this. "We knew there would be some tension," he says. "But I have to admit I was surprised."

Some of the outcry arose from a genuine concern that the modest fee hike might be too much for some parents.

Nancy Pilarski, for one, makes $7 an hour part-time and already pays $75 each spring for her son, Adam, to play in a Babe Ruth league. "How many parents can set aside this money every year?" she says. "We're talking about minimum-wage families."

Jordan was also the victim of long-simmering anger over something he can't control: increases in fees to play school sports. In the last three years, as the Portland School District has cut funding, high-school athletics fees have jumped from $60 or $75 (depending on a student's age) to $120, starting this fall.

Although fee opponents wrapped their arguments in dollars and cents, what torqued them the most was the obnoxious symbolism of taxing kids to play sports.

Despite the growing pressure, Jordan held firm. As late as June 28, he told WW he was "moving forward" with the fee. While open to slight modifications, he said, "I can't completely back off this."

Seven days later, however, he did just that. At the July 5 meeting with Sturgeon and other youth baseball and soccer officials, he coolly announced, "I will not impose the fee against your will," as if his decision were as casual as knocking mud off one's cleats.

Still, it was an awkward moment for Jordan. Sitting directly to his left was City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who's responsible for the parks bureau. Francesconi had just returned from a Central Oregon vacation, and although Jordan had notified the commissioner's staff of his intention to ditch the fee increase, the two men hadn't talked.

Outlining his plan of retreat during the meeting's early moments, Jordan looked to make sure Francesconi was in agreement. When the commissioner offered no opposition, Jordan recalled the fee.

An average bureaucrat would never have taken such a dramatic step without officially pre-flighting it with the boss. But Charles Jordan is as far from being an average bureaucrat as Ichiro Suzuki is from being an average right-fielder. For the 10 years between 1974 and 1984, Jordan was the man who repeatedly broke the mold in Portland.

A native Texan, Jordan was a parks official in California before coming to Portland in 1970 to work in the federal Model Cities Program, an urban development project. Then-mayor Neil Goldschmidt thought enough of Jordan to push for his appointment to a City Council vacancy four years later, making Jordan the city's first African-American commissioner. Re-elected three times, Jordan was used to battling competing interests. He often clashed with council member Frank Ivancie and, after being named police commissioner by Goldschmidt, butted heads with what was then an intensely militaristic battalion of cops. Most famously, in 1981, Jordan fired the two officers who tossed dead possums at a African American-owned restaurant, touching off a protest march on City Hall by enraged officers. Jordan also helped steer the original incarnation of PIIAC, the police review board, through the City Council. But in 1984, he stunned practically everyone by pulling up stakes and taking a job in Austin, Texas, as head of that city's parks department.

Jordan returned to the Rose City in 1989 to run parks for then-commissioner Mike Lindberg. Sharply dressed and regal in bearing, he's kept a remarkably low profile, deferring to his bosses while expanding the parks bureau's reach into Portland life.

Since 1990, the agency's budget has mushroomed from $27.2 million to $62.5 million, mostly due to increased capital spending. Over the same decade, the system has grown from 283 to 408 employees and from 184 to 228 parks and natural areas.

Ask Jordan and he'll tell you that Portland parks are in very good shape. He's not the only one. A 2000 study by the Trust for Public Land shows that Portland ranks fourth among large American cities in acres of parks and open spaces per capita (behind Phoenix, San Diego and Kansas City, Mo.) while being third in spending on parks per capita (behind Seattle and Minneapolis).

Yet in February 2000, City Auditor Gary Blackmer confirmed what many city insiders had long whispered: The parks bureau was not completely up to snuff. An audit by Blackmer found that while the public thought highly of parks, a lack of leadership by top management had led to some flaws, including poor data collection to track performance and an inconsistent strategy when it came to involving the public in parks decisions.

Blackmer's findings came as no surprise to bureau watchers. Among local officials such as City Commissioner Erik Sten, Jordan scores high points for creating a grand vision for his agency. At the same time, however, he is criticized by some for not being fully enmeshed in the details of running the bureau, a task principally left to deputy parks director David Judd.

"Charles is a big-picture thinker and does a great job of it, but as far as I can tell David runs the day-to-day details," says Sten.

Today, Blackmer says the parks bureau has addressed many of the deficiencies outlined in his audit, but that "it still has a long way to go" in tracking its recreation programs. For example, parks employees can tell you that 131,336 youth enrolled in sports skills classes between July 1999 and June 2000. They can also tell you that during the same year, 18,222 people either took classes or played matches at the Portland Tennis Center. But they can't provide comparable numbers for any year prior to 1997.

The lack of statistical trends made it hard for the youth sports advocates to trust parks officials on financial assumptions undergirding the proposed fee hike.

"I know for four years they haven't had a clue" how many hours youth soccer teams use parks fields, says Jean Hand, executive director of the Portland Youth Soccer Association.

Jordan has always stressed the big picture--better to err on the side of putting parks dollars into programs than into bean counters.

Yet in proposing to raise fees on youth sports, not only did Jordan make a huge miscalculation, he ignored one of Blackmer's recommendations: He left the public out of the process.

"It should have been handled better," says Francesconi, with uncharacteristic bluntness.

Critics suggest that the fee fight caught Jordan off-guard because he's constantly trying to do too much for citizens. Just inside Parks and Recreation's Portland Building headquarters is a welcome mat outlining elements of the bureau's mission. "Improve health and fitness...child care...eliminate loneliness...build self-esteem...protect the environment." Visitors to the bureau headquarters may think they've stumbled into a social-service agency, which is just what Jordan intended.

"Parks is the only city agency which has the moral responsibility to provide these things," he says. "We're responding to a societal need because idle hands are the devil's workshop."

Because of its pinched budget, however, Jordan acknowledges that the next three years will be "crucial" for his bureau.

For starters, parks recently took over 90 fields from Portland Public Schools, many of which require major renovations such as reworking drainage systems. Yet the City Council gave Jordan only $250,000, enough to mow the grass but not enough even to cover regular maintenance such as aeration and reseeding.

Despite his stretched budget, Jordan wants to take on an even bigger challenge: He wants to make the bureau a protector of the environment and set it on an aggressive course of acquiring natural habitat.

Two forces are driving this. First, Jordan himself is something of an environmental evangelist, addressing many national ethnic minority organizations. This role recently earned him an honorary doctorate from the University of Vermont.

Asked if natural spaces weren't Metro's responsibility, Jordan says, "We are in the business, too. We are in the business of natural areas. Metro just came on the scene. What is role of Metro and Portland parks? There is a partnership there; I don't know what it is right now."

But Jordan's plans also take advantage of public support.

In February, the parks bureau commissioned a survey by local pollsters Adam Davis and Tim Hibbitts. When asked where parks should expand its responsibilities, the top choice of city residents was acquiring and preserving wildlife habitat. Second was building more community centers; third was buying land along the Willamette River for trails.

City Commissioner Charlie Hales, who oversaw parks from 1993 to 1996, agrees that the bureau can serve to protect threatened habitat. But he's not as certain that it should be snapping up open space within the city limits.

"I can't tell you three critical sites owned by private hands that, if we don't buy them, are going to sprout condos and strip malls," he says. "I'd be real interested to hear where the heck that land is."

(Jordan says the bureau keeps a list of properties it's interested in, but he would not make that list public.)

In recent years, the parks bureau has increasingly worked in league with the Bureau of Environmental Services, the city's traditional lead green agency, on watershed projects such as Johnson Creek. BES director Dean Marriott has no problem with Parks and Recreation's increased environmental presence.

Jordan plans to use the lure of defending natural areas to entice Portlanders into supporting a multimillion-dollar parks bond measure in 2002. Still in the planning stages, the measure could top $75 million and would let his bureau acquire land, develop new parks and ease its maintenance woes.

How large of a bond the public is willing to swallow is an open question. Pollster Davis says a parks bond would enjoy majority support initially, but that support would drain off over time, especially if the economy continues its anemic behavior. During the economic boom times of 1998, a $65 million parks bond was narrowly defeated.

Jordan is eager to try again. "We should get a system structured that makes sense and that the next generation thinks is worth continuing," he says.

In fact, Jordan says his public-service future hinges on the passage of a bond measure. "I think that's going to determine in large measure whether I stay around or go out and do my other things. Just maintaining at my age is not what I want to do," he says. "I've got to have legacies. I've got to create things and make things happen. And I can't do that just maintaining."

A Park's Place
BY DAVID SHAFER

Rising between the sparkling chic of the Pearl District and the tired industrial real estate at the foot of the Fremont Bridge is Portland's hottest neonatal neighborhood. With its swanky new loft-apartment buildings and carefully planned streetscapes, the River District is held up by some as an exemplar of modern urban planning and derided by others as vexing proof that public money follows private influence. In the middle of the district--and the center of the debate--sits Jamison Square, a park currently under construction at the corner of Northwest 10th Avenue and Johnson Street.

This torn-up patch of land will be the first of three city parks to be built in the River District. If all goes according to plan, its October opening should give Portland bragging rights in urban-design circles and foster the sort of high-density integrated community atmosphere that the city seeks in this built-from-scratch "neighborhood."

But at a time when every park dollar is jealously guarded and the city is losing young families to the suburbs, some question the wisdom of building what will be the second-most expensive park ever built in the city of Portland--particularly in a section of town that is still more hospitable to terriers than to toddlers.

On a per-square-foot basis, Jamison Square's total $3.8 million price tag is comparable only to Pioneer Courthouse Square, on which the city spent $2.6 million in the early '80s (another $1.7 million was raised from private sources).

Many who object to Jamison's price tag stress that they are not opposed to beautiful or high-concept parks, only to spending so much money on a small park in a neighborhood that has yet to become a neighborhood. "The League is an avid supporter of parks and open spaces," says Shelley Lorenzen, first vice president of the Portland League of Women Voters, "but this is cutting into funds available to serve less well-to-do parts of town."

Those who watch kids stumble across the unmown and divoted outfields of other neighborhood parks scratch their heads when they hear about Jamison's $860,000 fountain, $80,000 landscaping budget, hardwood boardwalk and benches priced at $2,500 each.

"The resources directed downtown just dwarf what we get in the rest of the city," says Nick Sauvie, who helped residents of the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood wage a 10-year fight to get a city park in their Southeast Portland enclave.

It's not a completely fair comparison. Jamison Square is being built not with money from the Parks and Recreation budget but with bonds backed by the increased property taxes expected in the River District. The parks department is overseeing Jamison's construction, however, and will be responsible for the $113,000 annual cost of maintaining and managing it.

Also in the equation is the fact that some neighborhood activists think the park is little more than a publicly funded front yard for developer Homer Williams and his company, Hoyt Street Properties, whose 34 acres of River District land include three sides of Jamison Square. A 1997 agreement between HSP and the city stipulated that the developer donate the land for Jamison Square (the agreement also calls for the city to purchase land from HSP for the next two parks to be built). The company then used the land donation to apply for a $1 million credit against the development charges the city imposed. To some, this looked like double-dipping.

In January 2000, the parks bureau official who oversees development fees opposed the credits. "The exclusion of the fees was never a part of the agreement and should not be considered in this case," Mary Anne Cassin wrote in a letter to Parks Director Charles Jordan. "It will mean that over $1 million in parks will not be acquired in other parts of the city." Nonetheless, Jordan reluctantly granted HSP the credit, which has been challenged and is now under review by a city hearings officer.

Williams rejects the idea that Jamison Square is a sweetheart deal for his company. "We're not the only beneficiaries," he says. "The parks are going to increase the quality of life for everybody living down here."

But even that line of argument gets tangled in debate.

While Jamison's architectural renderings show young families strolling along the wooden boardwalk and children splashing on the stones of the water feature, it is unclear exactly where these kids will come from. Unlike the stroller-derby atmosphere of some Portland neighborhoods, the River District, with its studio lofts and high-end retail, is childless.

"No families are living in the River District; there are no kids at all there now," says City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who oversees the parks bureau. "Hopefully that will change."

Until it does, however, critics will no doubt continue to question whether it's appropriate to build concrete monuments like Jamison while soccer fields and playgrounds fall further into disrepair. It's a question Jordan says is best directed at others.

"I'm not going to touch that," he says. "That's not my call; it's the City Council's call. We've raised the connection from time to time. We've said, 'Look, you can't forget neighborhood parks.'"  

PAY TO PLAY
Given the recent furor over the city's aborted plans to increase the fees paid by some youth sports leagues, you might think Portland Parks and Recreation is forcing parents to mortgage their double-wides in order to let little Jared and Jessica play. In reality, the bureau's fees seem darn reasonable. Here's a sample of what it costs, calculated on a per-person, per-hour basis, to participate in some of the parks bureau's 8,000-plus activities and classes. For a complete guide to class offerings, go to the bureau's website at www.parks.ci.portland.or.us.

COURSE (AGES) || LOCATION || $ PER HOUR

Aikido (14+) || Montavilla Community Center || 2.00

Aquaducks (6 months-3 years) || Grant Pool || 6.50

Animal Tracking (12+) || East Portland CC || 16.67

Archery-Youth || Mount Scott CC || 3.00

Bachelor Survival (Sewing/Cooking)(9-13) || Mount Scott CC || 6.67

Ballet I (8-13) || Laurelhurst Dance Studio || 4.50

Ballet/Jazz Combo (4-6) || Mount Scott CC || 4.00

Basketball-Little Tykes (3-5) || Southwest CC || 5.50

Basketball (8-11) || Hosford Middle School || 3.00

Basketball For Girls(8-11) || St. Johns CC || 2.60

Baseball-Little Tykes (3-5) || East Portland CC || 2.67

Baseball For Pee Wees (4-6) || Southwest CC || 5.00

Golf Lessons For Seniors || Senior Recreation || 2.50

Golf-Youth Program || Portsmouth Middle School || 0.45

Gymnastics-Beg/Int (7-11) || Mount Scott CC || 3.00

Hip-Hop Dance (8-13) || Prescott Elementary || 1.33

Joy Of Singing (14+) || Jackson Middle School || 3.21

Karate (14+) || Mount Scott CC || 1.25

Piano (6-12) || Metropolitan Learning Center || 4.00

Pre-Ballet (4-5) || Peninsula CC || 4.00

Royal Tea Party(4-7) || Mount Scott CC || 5.00

Salsa (18+) || Rice School || 5.00

Tennis-Beg. (19+) || Portland Tennis Center || 7.09

Volleyball (9-12) || Hillside CC || 4.00

Yoga (14+) || Sellwood CC || 6.00

 

--Compiled by Tegan Raleigh  

 

The Cost of Fun in Four Cities
In recent years, Portland Parks and Recreation has increasingly relied on fees to make ends meet, a trend that's led to some grumbling among the folks who have to pay for those swimming lessons and dance classes. So, are Portland's fees out of line? It's hard to tell. Finding comparable rec classes in different cities is difficult, and, even then, the cost comparison ignores key factors such as the quality of instruction and facilities. (Note: All costs, unless otherwise noted, are calculated on a per-hour basis.)

Portland Seattle Eugene San Francisco Youth League Basketball
(cost per team/season) $200-$250 $40 $380 free Youth Tennis Lessons $3-$7 $12 NA

free Youth Swimming
(6 months-3 years) $6-$7.50 $11 $8

 

$3 Lifeguard Training
(cost of entire training) $115 $85 $125 NA Yoga $6-$9 $8.50 NA NA Youth Ballet $4.50-$6 NA NA Ceramics*

$6 $21 $2.40 $4.63 Painting* $5 $10 $3.12 $7.78

*Price incudes materials, except for San Francisco ceramics class.

NA: Either a comparable program is not offered or the current costs were unavailable.

Sources: Portland Bureau of Parks and Recreation, Seattle Parks and Recreation, City of Eugene Parks and Open Spaces, San Francisco Recreation and Park Department.

--Compiled by Tegan Raleigh


The Parks and Recreation bureau has convened a task force of youth sports officials and parks employees to find some other way to cut parks' budget. Recommendations are due to Charles Jordan by the end of September.




Last week's retreat wasn't Jordan's first. In 1997, he ordered trash cans removed from 80 percent of the city's parks in order to prevent slashing funding for youth programs. After a noisy public outcry, the plan was shelved.




Although he hasn't sat on the Portland City Council in 17 years, it's still not uncommon for people to refer to Jordan as Commissioner.




Portland Police Officers Craig Ward and Jim Galloway, who were fired for throwing the infamous possums, were later reinstated by a federal arbitrator.




The parks bureau's 2020 Vision Plan will be presented to City Council at 2 pm on July 12.




After a weekend of prayer in 1992, Jordan chose not to join Vera Katz and Earl Blumenauer in the race for mayor.




Charles Jordan's annual salary is $107, 869. Deputy parks director David Judd makes $92,456.




With 12 years' tenure, Jordan is the longest-serving bureau director in city government.
 
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