South Bend Venues Parks & Arts has been awarded the 2022 National Gold Medal Award for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management from the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration. The award honors the department’s excellence in long-range planning, resource management and innovative approaches to offer superior park and recreation services. SBVPA Executive Director Aaron Perri says the award is the highest possible recognition in the industry, and the city’s efforts to earn it are just the beginning.
In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Perri says the award is a reassurance that the department is on the right track.
“In addition to the physical improvements you’ve seen, the award also recognizes the way in which we do business,” said Perri. “The strategy behind how we’re measuring programs, measuring their successes, how we’re deciding our cost recovery strategy, how we’re ensuring people have equitable access to all of our recreational amenities, and even how we’re measuring success.”
SBVPA, which won the award in the Class III category for cities with populations of 75,001 – 150,000, was judged on its ability to address the needs of the community through the collective efforts of community members, staff members and elected officials.
Perri says the department is wrapping up a five-year initiative, called My SB Parks & Trails, which included more than $60 million in investments in the city’s shared public spaces. The initiative also included the large-scale redevelopment of Howard Park, which features an ice trail, fire pits, event lawn and community center.
“Its not enough just to have a park or a program, its the ‘why’ do we have it?” explains Perri. “What is it doing for the environment? How is it giving back in a way that is ecologically sustainable? What is it doing for community and economic development? How are we gleaning returns on investments and helping our neighborhoods improve and evolve? What is it doing for social equity and ensuring our community is a place where everyone can thrive and what is it doing for the general health and well-being of our city as it relates to physical activity and recreation access?”
Perri says numbers are up across the board. Howard Park is attracting about 40,000 skaters each year since its overhaul, compared to about 7,000 annual visitors prior to the renovation. The department is also measuring tree canopy coverage with a goal to reach 40% coverage by the year 2040.
And Perri says the department doesn’t plan to slow down.
“We have groundbreakings on several projects yet to come,” says Perri. “The Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center—its one of our oldest and most well-used recreation centers—is going to see an $18 million renovation and expansion. Actually, a brand new, two-story building. We have some additional aquatics planning yet to do around Kennedy and Potawatomi Parks. We have, I want to say, about 18 new pickleball courts going in next year—America’s fastest-growing sport, keeping up with those trends.”
The department is also gearing up to bring the new Seitz Park hydroelectric generation facility online, which will capture the energy of the dam’s falling water to generate electricity. The project, which is an agreement between the city of South Bend and the University of Notre Dame, includes construction of an underground hydroelectric turbine along the St. Joseph River.
The department also oversees the Morris Performing Arts Center, which is undergoing a multi-million-dollar facelift.
Additionally, Perri says the department’s park health dashboard is helping maintain the quality of the city’s parks with real-time data regarding lawn mowing, trash removal, and other services that contribute to quality of place.
The city says a national academy member will visit South Bend later this fall to celebrate the award.
South Bend Venues Parks & Arts Executive Director Aaron Perri discusses the department’s efforts and why its being honored on a national scale.