A Phoenix City Council subcommittee is scheduled today, Jan. 5, to discuss how soon parks officials can get a long-delayed master plan update back on track.

But the pandemic could further stymie them from doing much to tune up a roadmap for future upgrades that hasn’t been updated since 1988.

Back then, Phoenix’s population was less than half the 4.6 million it is today and the city had yet to develop many of the 200 miles of trails in desert parks and mountain preserve land, 185 parks, 32 community and recreation centers, 29 pools and eight golf courses it has today.

A new master plan “will set a vision to guide long-term park development; ensure that park amenities reflect the community; review and recommend cutting edge programs; and address issues of equity, accessibility and sustainability,” according to a memo Deputy City Manager Inger Erickson sent Council’s Community and Cultural Investment Subcommittee.

It also “will focus on meaningful engagement with the community, evaluating and inventorying existing developed and undeveloped parks, programs and facilities; and assessing community demographics and recreation trends.” 

Her January 2021 memo also expressed an intention to be “identifying national best practices and emerging challenges in the field of parks and recreation.”

And an aquatics advisory committee that was reestablished in 2019 would “play a role to help assess, evaluate and make recommendations specific to aquatic programs and facilities, in conjunction with the new parks master plan,” she added, promising a first draft by January 2022.

But the pandemic brought the process to a near-standstill.

In her latest memo, dated Dec. 15, she told the

subcommittee, “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the significant amount of public engagement required in a Master Plan process, the project was temporarily delayed.”

 Turns out, COVID-19 impacted what Erickson calls “the core of the plan” – gathering public input.

Erickson first detailed its importance in January 2021, telling Council, “A key component of the parks master plan is a comprehensive and citywide public engagement process. The engagement process will include eight months of outreach and dialogue with park users, community groups, stakeholders, local businesses, non-profits and other recreation service providers. 

“The intent is not only to engage existing users, but also those who may not currently utilize the parks system.”

The ambitious outreach will include both virtual and in-person public meetings throughout the city, workshops, community focus groups, interviews with neighborhood leaders and other stakeholders, surveys and even “youth engagement” events, according to the memo. “All outreach will be done in both English and Spanish,” Erickson said.

Because some people have no access to technology, in-person contact was critical – an impossible goal as COVID-19 continues running rampant in a city where the last restrictions on park use were lifted less than three months ago.

“The most time-consuming component of the plan is the thorough, citywide public and stakeholder engagement process,” she said.

The outreach is important as “feedback will be directly incorporated into the Master Plan to help identify community needs and priorities, as well as barriers that may prohibit individuals from visiting city parks and participating in services or programs,” Erickson wrote recently.

Moreover, she said, “Information gathered through the public engagement and assessment process will then be used to formulate strategic and realistic goals to help ensure the department is meeting the needs of the community and providing meaningful recreation amenities and services equitably throughout the city.”

While outreach has been estimated to require at least eight months, the plan also will include “examining current service levels; conducting an equity analysis to identify gaps in services; and identifying national best practices and emerging challenges in the field of parks and recreation.”

Groundwork was first laid for the overall master plan process in November 2020, when department staff appeared before the Parks and Rec Board.

At that Nov. 19, 2020, meeting, Erickson told the subcommittee in her memo last month, “The community and board members voiced overwhelming support for the project and their desire to participate in the process.”

With the post-holiday surge in COVID-19 still yet to crest in January 2021, the council subcommittee didn’t even bother discussing the plan or Erickson’s memo, deferring it to last June, according to minutes of that meeting.

Minutes of the subsequent June meeting show the subcommittee passed over it again, never setting a date for a discussion.

The city has hired a lead consultant, Information EPG, and “an additional team of subconsultants have been identified to support EPG in the plan efforts,” Erickson noted.

In her latest memo, she lengthened the time it will take to produce a draft for the subcommittee, adding six months to an initial 12-month completion time.

And the pandemic has again forced Erickson to leave the subcommittee in suspense, explaining she doesn’t know when the planning process can begin, explaining: 

“The department continues to monitor the COVID-19 transmission spread level and will work with the Parks and Recreation Board to identify a timeline to launch the Master Plan process based on this data.” 

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