In 2016, the city of Starkville took over direct operations of its parks from the Starkville Parks Commission — a body appointed by aldermen that had overseen parks and recreation for two decades.
Five years later, the city is again outsourcing its parks management, this time to a private company.
Aldermen on Tuesday approved a contract with Sports Facilities Management to oversee all aspects of parks in the city — including maintenance, buildings, greenspace, programming and staffing. The company will take over Nov. 1.
Mayor Lynn Spruill told The Dispatch last week she felt outsourcing those operations to professional park managers made more sense than continuing a model of direct oversight that had become riddled with challenges.
“There was a learning curve when we took the parks back over,” Spruill said. “You have to understand the structure and how it’s working and how it isn’t necessarily working.”
Over the past five years, Spruill said, the city has seen three different park directors and one interim director, leading to an issue of inconsistent management.
Parks and Recreation struggled to keep up staffing levels. Spruill said, and COVID-19 compounded that problem. The city temporarily shut down its parks last year as a way to save money during the early months of the pandemic. When parks reopened, many employees did not return — either because they did not want to or because they were dismissed for various reasons.
Now, of the 15 full-time positions budgeted for Parks and Recreation, only six are filled. Spruill said she believes SFM will be more successful with recruiting and retaining employees because of the company’s broad range of marketing and scope of people in the field.
Starkville had already agreed in April to partner with SFM to manage the $20-million-plus Cornerstone Park development under construction. The complex off Highway 25 will house tournament-ready baseball and softball fields.
“All of these things came together,” Spruill said. “When SFM came in — we had contracted with them for Cornerstone — it became obvious to me that they were a very professional company and I think they bring a whole lot to the table.”
Although SFM will manage the parks, the city will maintain ownership of park’s property. The board voted in September to allocate $5.5 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds for expansion and improvements of city parks.
How the agreement will work
Under the agreement with SFM, the city will pay the company $15,000 per month. Additionally, the city will continue to fund the parks budget each year, which SFM must present for approval. That budget would include things like salaries, maintenance and upkeep.
The city can opt-out of its three-year contract at any time. If there is cause for removal, there is no penalty, but if the city pulls out with no cause, there will be some type of buyout cost.
SFM Vice President of Account Management John Sparks said he believes his company can create a yearly budget of around $1 million, while the city’s current budget for parks is nearly $1.4 million.
“It’s a management fee structure,” Sparks said. “We would come to (the board) with the management fee and then bring an operating budget. (The board) will approve that operating budget and work within it.”
Parks staff will become SFM employees, including current director Brandon Doherty, whose role in the new arrangement has not been defined, Spruill said. SFM will hire new employees directly.
Since they will no longer be city employees, parks staff will not be eligible to continue in the Public Employees Retirement System. Sparks said SFM does have its own benefits package, including 401K.
“We don’t compete with the PERS program, but we do have an adequate benefits package,” he said.
Two current parks employees will be reassigned to other city departments. Spruill said that one employee had 23 years vested in PERS and could retire in two more years.
Doherty would not comment for this report, instead deferring to Spruill.
Concerns about the partnership
Ward 5 Alderman Hamp Beatty, who has expressed opposition to this partnership, said he was taken aback by the swiftness of the decision to outsource the parks department. He believes the city should have handled its problems internally instead of letting a third-party company come in.
To address management issues, Beatty said the city should have looked at all possibilities to rebuild the department. He also said the city could offer higher wages to park employees to help with recruitment and retention of staff members, including making more employees full time instead of part time.
“I think we need to offer competitive pay and try to make as many positions full time as we can,” Beatty said. “You don’t get the benefits. You don’t get the health insurance, and you don’t get any of the PERS employee retirement system until you’re full time. … People who work in public service do not join this field to make an extreme amount of money. They do it for the amazing benefits that come along with it, and they won’t get the same benefits working for (SFM).”
Spruill said while she anticipates SFM saving costs through parks, the purpose of outsourcing is to create more programming. Along with facility and program management, SFM will have training for coaches to better the sports-learning environments and juvenile crime reduction programs. SFM also plans to have concessions for sale at various parks throughout the city, something Spruill said Starkville has never been successful at implementing.
“One of the things they do is they have what they consider a greater revenue opportunity,” Spruill said. “We have never maximized our revenue opportunities because for example concessions are a huge portion of things that happen in parks that are activities related. … We’ve never managed to do that.”
Spruill said she is hopeful for the success of Starkville parks moving forward and believes SFM will help resolve issues the city has seen over the past few years.
“If we are ever going to take it up another notch, which is one of the things I want us to do is to be absolutely professional in everything we do and do it as well as we can, then we need to take advantage of opportunities that are there, and I happen to think that SFM brings one of those levels of professionalism that we have not ever had in the parks,” Spruill said.