How Indianapolis Suburb Carmel Funds Its Popular -- And Profitable -- Parks (Hint: Not Taxes)

Nov 2, 2016

The relationship between Indianapolis, in cash-strapped Marion County, and its affluent northern suburb of Carmel often draws comparisons with the famed rivalry between "Parks & Rec’s" fictional Pawnee and Eagleton.

Though the Carmel-Clay Parks & Recreation Department doesn’t have Eagleton’s “Department of Infinity Pool Design” or “Department of Dressage” (what Leslie Knope calls “fancy horse riding”), it does have some very upscale parks and recreational facilities.

The town’s fitness center, the $55 million Monon Community Center, has a waterpark (with a luxurious “slow river” feature) that attracts visitors from around the metro area. And last month, the town got its newest kids’ playground, a $4 million facility in Central Park that features a 32-foot tower with bridges, slides, numerous climbing structures and tunnels as well as an electronic whack-a-mole and a splash pad.

Carmel has also found some innovative ways to pay for these things. Parks Department Director Mark Westermeier says the city has made a big investment in outdoor recreation.

“Our budget has grown from about $1.8 million to $12 million today,” says Westermeier. “And only 20 percent of that is from tax dollars.”

The other 80 percent comes from revenue generated mainly from the Monon Community Center built in 2007. In addition to the water park, the center offers fitness classes, before and after school programs, and attracts over half a million visitors per year.

“Because we’re not using tax dollars to fund our operations, those dollars can be used to create new parks, specialty programs and other things that we can use to give back to the community,” remarks Westermeier.

Carmel’s investment in parks may be one factor among others in the suburb’s good health outcomes.

Research shows that access to parks and greenways is linked to better health. And attractive, well-maintained parks with more features which have been shown to encourage more use overall and more active play among children.

“When there are trails, when there are sidewalks, when there are parks that are connected by trails, by sidewalks, people are healthier,” says Kim Irwin, the executive director of Health By Design a nonprofit coalition that works to promote healthier places.

The greater Indy metro area — which includes Carmel — has ranked at the very bottom of the National Fitness Index for the last three years. This index, produced by the American College of Sports Medicine, measures several indicators of health and compares the top 50 metro areas in the U.S.

Though the fitness index lumped them together, a county health breakdown from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds some stark differences between two counties in the metro area.

Carmel, in Hamilton County, ranks first in health outcomes like life expectancy. Indianapolis is in Marion County which ranks 83 out of 92 counties.

A lot of factors go into these health differences; parks funding may be one. One of the measurements in the Fitness Index is investment in parks.

Irwin says for communities, having good parks comes down to the bottom line.

“That involves making choices about budgets, what we invest in and how much we invest.” Irwin says.

The Carmel parks budget breaks down to more than $130 per city resident, while Indianapolis spends only $35 per person. (The national average is $102.)

In contrast to Carmel, in Indianapolis the majority of its $32 million parks and rec budget is taxpayer funded.

With 11,254 acres of parks to maintain across the entire Marion County, Indy’s park system depends on significant support from philanthropic partners, corporate investors and a parks foundation that help supplement their budget.

“We have finite resources with the city government,” says Indy Parks Director Linda Broadfoot. “But I think we are delivering a lot for the dollars we spend at the parks department.”

Broadfoot says the department is always exploring ways to build newer and better parks — including finding ways to generate money.

“We are not alone as a department as also needing to look at additional revenue services,” she says.

When asked if she can relate to Parks and Rec’s zealous Leslie Knope, Broadfoot says “yes,” though, unlike Knope, she doesn’t hold any deep-seated hatred for her neighboring town.

“Our partners to the north are very good friends of ours,” says Broadfoot.