Creating Impact Through Giving Episode 5: Parks for the People

Dan Martel: You're listening to Creating Impact Through Giving, a podcast brought to you by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation providing you with the stories, techniques and tools around impactful giving. On this show, we'll talk to donors, professional advisors, nonprofit leaders, and our team of experts to identify charitable strategies that have resulted in some of our most impactful gifts.

I'm Dan Martel and welcome back to the pod. Today we're excited to touch on a topic that hasn't received a lot of airtime yet but one that is actually an important area of impact here at the Community Foundation: The beautification of parks and public spaces, most notably done through grants and projects administered by the OCCF Parks & Public Space Initiative. Here with us to take us back to a time before parks as we know and love them today, is Brian Dougherty, director of our Parks & Public Space Initiative.

Later also stay tuned for my conversation with J.B. Schuelein from the historic Mesta Park neighborhood, who is going to talk to us about his neighborhood's improvement initiative and how it was working with the Parks & Public Space initiative to realize the neighborhood's goals. Finally, we're chatting to Leslie Hudson, committee chair of the Margaret Annis Boys Trust, Parks & Public Space Initiative, on her philosophy and contributions in the realm of beautification. Exciting stuff ahead, stay tuned for some important notes in the end, and now I can't wait to turn to our first guest.

Dan: Brian, welcome!

Brian Dougherty: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me today.

Dan: So Brian, you've worked in the parks and tree realm for over 45 years, correct?

Brian: Correct.

Dan: You're a licensed landscape architect and horticulturalist and you've been involved in countless parks projects across the Oklahoma City metro, and, in the late 90s, we were fortunate enough to steal you away from OSU-OKC's horticulture department, right?

Brian: Correct.

Dan: You played a big part in developing the horticulture are floral program as we know it today and then you became OCCF's resident tree expert. Before we get into the role that the Community Foundation plays in this kind of big picture of parks and public spaces, how has our perspective on the significance of parks changed over the years?

Brian: You know, I think Oklahoma City was unique because we were so land-rich, we had so much land. So, sometimes in some of the areas, you might have a neighborhood and right next to it a wheat field or other types of undeveloped land. And so, some people didn't appreciate some of the parks quite as much because we were land-rich. As the urban environment has continued to grow, as downtown has continued to evolve, then I think the presence and the value of parks really go up, as a public space that people can go and enjoy.

Dan: What is the role of the Community Foundation and when did we enter the picture?

Brian: You know, it was prior to me coming on, but in 1990, Margaret Annis Boys, a school teacher here in Oklahoma City, left her estate to the Community Foundation for the beautification of public lands. And in 1997, the Community Foundation Trustees did [some] long-range planning to establish the Parks & Public Space Initiative as one of the focus areas. So, you have these two complementing each other, and in 1998, I was asked to join the Community Foundation. Prior to my coming [on], we would still do some flower garden beds, some butterfly gardens at school, some different things. [We] really kind of brought it up to a lot more significance of working through trees and larger projects starting in the late 90s.

Dan: So, let's talk a little bit about what OCCF does and how do we work with the community, whether it's a neighborhood park or school...tell us a little bit about how that works.

Brian: Whether it's a school park, a neighborhood park, a trail - you're going back into that community and saying, what is this public space, how do you envision this. In one area it might be a tot lot, in another area, it might be an education facility. So, going back in with the neighborhood, talking about what their vision or what their dreams would be and then how do you facilitate this, realizing that these are all public pieces of property. There's going to be approvals, there's going to be permitting, there's going to be all kinds of things. It's much different than just a private piece of property that you might go out and, say the CEO said to do this, so you do it. You're going to have to go through a process, so we help them understand what the process is and then how to get from one point to the next point. Sometimes it could be a small trail in a neighborhood park, it might be planting trees, it might be a new playground, it might be in a school and sometimes it might go through a principal and the school board. Other times it might be going through a river design committee and back through city council. A lot of it is learning how to help facilitate and navigate what they really want in the end.

Dan: How does that work, how do our grants work?

Brian: For a lot of our grants in the Parks & Public Space Initiative/Margaret Annis Boys Trust - and it's handled as basically one grant program - twice a year, we have applications that are due. I will start working with them a lot of times six months before, maybe nine months before. We'll talk about a vision and we'll be getting it down to a point. And so again, it might be trees in a park, and sometimes it's a replacement of some damaged trees, sometimes it's a new incorporation, maybe it's a park bench or walking trail - any number of things. Our DNA is probably at the strongest in the trees. And so we'll come up with that and we'll start working through the process with the city, with the neighborhood and then we'll go to the Trustees for approval. It goes to a committee and then up to the Trustees. And it will, for instance, say, we're going to replace 14 trees at Edgemere Park, or we're going to do some Crape Myrtle and planting in Mesta Park or we're going to do any number of projects like that, and then it would get approved. And then, the grantee, I would work hand-in-hand with them and we'll accomplish that over the next year with whatever the Trustees have approved.

Dan: At what time of year, do the applications normally get filled out? When do people need to be conscious of the timing when it comes to grants?

Brian: We used to do them four times a year, January, April, July and October. Now we do a January deadline and a July deadline. Part of it is so they go into sequence of when the appropriate planting time was. A January grant deadline means that it will have gone through the entire approval process within about six weeks. That means, in the middle of February or the end of February, there would be a full approval. There is still time to get that project in the ground that spring. And that's a lot of why we do the January and the July [deadlines.] July sets us up for fall projects, and sometimes projects are broken into two, so we want to do half of it in the fall and half of it the following spring. And so those seem to work out well. And like I said, so often, we're working with people six months, a year -- some of the projects that originally talked to me last spring will be the projects we're working with this coming year.

Dan: OCCF doesn't just give grants to build parks and public green spaces, we've also taken on somewhat of a leadership role -- tell us about some of those projects, how did they come about and what's the value behind the data?

Brian: I think, for some of them, it's a simple as we are prairie here. So, you know, you look at something as simple as, well we like trees and you look at surveys and people like trees and they like shade. But you know, part of it is, okay what trees are going to live, how are we going to sustain -- we're not looking at 5 years or ten years, we're really looking at what will this be in 50 years or a hundred years. Can I make it as sustainable as I possibly can? And so from that, we've done the tree inventory study, we've done the tree canopy study. We're very active in some of the trails maps and working back with ACOG on some of the trails and amenity standards on a trail. How do you add watering areas or how do you add trash containers? Because the end of the line is, you really wanted to be safe, accessible, you want it to feel good and so, some are very traditional type projects, and some are very untraditional projects.

Dan: You know, we have Maps 4 coming up. What role do you think this data could play for future developments in Oklahoma City?

Brian: I think the tree inventory [project] played a huge role. 19,000 different trees in our city park for inventory, 20 data points on each one. We know a lot about how a Sycamore is going to perform or a Shumard Oak, so that's fantastic. We have 560 square miles in the tree canopy [assessment study]. It's dealing with stormwater retention, it's dealing with all kinds of other data in terms of the canopy and where the sweet spots are on the amount of shade. And then you have the parks master plan, which we've been very involved in, that really identifies what a neighborhood park looks like, what a community park, what type of amenities would fit best into those. So we've been working with all of these for quite a number a year and you take that type of data and start using it as part of the framework for what can be a Maps 4 and I think you're just light years ahead. You've taken a lot of guessing out of it. You have a kind of a structure all ready to walk into Maps 4.

Dan: Yeah. I want to talk about something that's kind of exciting that we have planned later for this year and into early spring. Do you want to give our listeners a little sneak peek, Brian, as to what that might be?

Brian: You know, we went through the 50th anniversary and that was special with the trees on the river and planting 800 trees and they're still doing and performing well and we've looked at the incorporation of wildflowers. Well, there was a donor that just really loved beautification and I talked about doing something with bulbs, a spring-type of bulb. And you know, a lot of people will think about that and say, in the spring, now all at once the bulbs are coming up. So there was a thought about turning around and doing a bulb project, especially in light of 2020 and the pandemic and where we've been and could we do something now to plant for looking forward to 2021. And I think when you look at the social distancing and all, these outdoor projects like this can happen. So we have 65,000 bulbs coming in and we will be planning on around 500 to 600 different locations in highly-visible, public locations around the city. And it's a chance for whether it's a friends group at the library or whether it's at a park or a neighborhood to turn around and to plant maybe 50 or 100 bulbs around that sign or at that entry. And next spring, it will be complimenting some of the big projects around the city, Scissortail [Park] I think has 60,000 daffodils that will be coming in, Myriad Gardens has them, the zoo... and here you have these smaller projects coming up all over around our libraries and our school throughout Oklahoma City. So we're looking forward to that. We're going to be planning that right around Thanksgiving this year and then watching everything come up this next March and April.

Dan: Brian, a lot of people refer to you as a rock star in this industry and regardless of how large or how small the project is, you really seem to enjoy what you do.

Brian: I enjoy helping people help themselves through this process. And you know it's a real success. Sometimes, it really is as simple as this walking trail in a neighborhood park, or some benches they've always dreamed of, or a memory garden at Will Rogers Park or some tree planting at Oklahoma Christian University, where the trails in Edmond meet the trails in Oklahoma City. But it's helping navigate that and looking for that real success at the end.

Dan: Well thanks so much for chatting with us today, Brian. Can't wait to see what else we have coming up in the parks and beautification area. Appreciate your time.

Brian: Thank you.

Dan: My next guest is quite familiar with the Parks & Public Space Initiative and we were to work with his neighborhood association many, many times. So let's welcome J.B. Schuelein from the Mesta Park Neighborhood Improvement Initiative, hi J.B.

JB Schuelein: Hi, welcome, thank you!

Dan: Thanks for being here! So you have been a resident of the historic Mesta Park neighborhood for more than 30 years and you've played a crucial role in shaping that neighborhood. So tell us a little bit about where that initiative and that passion originated.

JB: I think when I first was introduced [to] Mesta Park, I had friends that lived there and I was looking for an opportunity to invest. Because the neighborhood was pretty run down. It was in the 70s and early 80s when many of those homes had really fallen into disrepair. People had moved out of the neighborhood, mostly with families, because it was at a time when we had... they were integrating schools. And so it was about the late 70s when some urban pioneers moved back to the neighborhood and began to revitalize it. I came along at about the mid-80s, about the time when we were considering becoming historic preservation and it was a big challenge for our neighborhood. But what I really was attracted to the people, a very diverse neighborhood of all races and nationalities and religions, gay, straight, affluent, not so affluent people. It still surprises [people], you know, we still have affordable housing in Mesta Park, duplexes and garage apartments and four-plexes and things. But the thing that really grabbed me was the people because they're very welcoming. In a diverse neighborhood, I think you find it that people are just... make you feel comfortable being there since everybody was welcome. Take up our neighborhood namesake, who is Perle Mesta who, you know, was the “hostess with the mostess” in the subject of the movie ‘Call Me Madam.' So we've always been a social neighborhood with ice cream socials and picnics and Mesta Festa and home tours and Easter egg hunts. And so, once I got there, I didn't ever want to leave.

Dan: And you're still there!

JB: And I'm still there!

Dan: Let's talk a little bit about this improvement plan back in around ‘03 to enhance the park. You talked about having a couple of big agenda items; one was to replace the aging sidewalks and the other was to establish an endowment fund at the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. Tell me about how you decided to reach out to get OCCF on board and how did you know about the endowment program?

JB: I think we heard about the program through friends in other neighborhoods, Crown Heights I think was the first or so of the neighborhoods, and then Edgemere Park, I think they started theirs a year before we started ours. We had a strategic planning retreat in 2002 and we had a really good board. And it was difficult because we didn't have a lot of money and we had a couple of -- those are both pretty expensive projects at that time -- but I think after a great deal of discussion we just boldly moved forward and decided we were going to do both. And so we funded the sidewalk replacement program at $5,000 and said we're going to raise $10,000 to start that endowment fund. And lo and behold, we met that match requirement from the Kirkpatrick Family Fund to get started and then our good friends in Heritage Hills even match that. So we start at $10,000 but we got $30,000 to start so it was really a win-win for everybody.

Dan: That is outstanding. How would you characterize that partnership you all have with the OCCF?

JB: Well, it's been terrific. You get benefits in ways you don't even realize. In addition to establishing that kind of a stable source of revenue for your neighborhood, we can get great technical assistance from people like Brian Dougherty. I mean any issue that we brought to the Community Foundation, he would make it better. I mean, he takes a personal interest in it and really wants to help you. We can learn from his lessons learned, from things that work well in another neighborhood or another park and things that didn't, but it's also opened doors to other fundraising opportunities. We were invited to workshops to work on capacity building, that's the word I was looking for, capacity building and fundraising. And it's always networking with other neighborhoods and other nonprofits. So, anytime you come to a meeting at the Community Foundation you're going to meet somebody that has something else that we can learn from them. It's invaluable.

Dan: Has there been a particular project that comes to mind that you were really proud of that you like to talk about?

JB: The most recent one was our biggest, and it was actually a consolidation of three projects in one. And, in visiting with Brian about what we had in mind, he suggested why not, you know, call it ‘Finish the Park,' because I think that's our fourth grant and this one was all-encompassing. It included the volleyball courts and a new entry on the northwest corner and then also expanding our irrigation system there. A large section of the park is intensely shaded and we couldn't get the grass to grow and the runoff would kind of clog up the storm drains. It was really not very good. And Brian could look at the projects that we had in mind and say, well I can help you with this or I can help you with this but I can't really do this, so let's work together. And he helped kind of massage the grant to get where he could help us in the maximum he could. And with that, we were able to accomplish all three. The parks department, of course, is a partner, too, and we really do appreciate working with them; they were very helpful. And it all kind of came together. It was pretty challenging but we did finish all three and the park looks so much better now with these latest enhancements.

Dan: What would you say to other neighborhoods that are thinking about making improvements to their green spaces and are maybe considering applying for a grant?

JB: I would strongly encourage them to [apply]. You know, the endowment fund from the Charitable Organization Endowment program got us started but every program at the Community Foundation is valuable. And I think for us, it's that building for our long term financial security, it makes a lot of sense. I really encourage other neighborhoods and organizations to participate.

Dan: Well, thanks so much for coming on the pod today, J.B. Good luck with everything you're doing in your neighborhood and we hope to see another exciting project from you guys soon.

JB: Thank you so much.

Dan: Finally, we want to talk to someone who's been heavily involved with our Parks & Public Space Initiative. Leslie Hudson has served as committee chair for both the Margaret Annis Boys Trust, Parks & Public Space Initiative and the Greater Oklahoma City Parks & Trails Foundation. And Leslie has also been a former Trustee with the OCCF. Welcome, Leslie – it's an honor to have you join us today.

Leslie Hudson: Thank you for the invitation.

So, Leslie, we could talk about the multitude of ways you have contributed to OCCF's mission and to the community as a whole, but what I am most curious about today is your passion for beautification. I want to talk a lot about that today. How did you get involved with the Parks & Public Space Initiative and were you always excited about trees and green spaces?

Leslie: I became involved with the Parks & Public Space Initiative in the mid-nineties. I was serving as the tree and beautification chairman for the Heritage Hills neighborhood and we heard about the availability of funds for these kinds of efforts from the Margaret Annis Boys Trust at the Community Foundation. So, working with Brian, I applied for a grant for Heritage Hills neighborhood, which we were successful in receiving, and this kind of started a relationship . Brian and I grew up in Oklahoma City, had very similar experiences both with formal and informal activities within the Oklahoma City parks, And so we forged that kind of relationship. Through parks, Nancy and Brian invited me to serve as an outside committee member on the Margaret Annis Boys Trust, Parks & Public Space Initiative. A couple of years later, I was invited to serve as a Trustee on the Oklahoma City Community Foundation board and during that tenure as a Trustee, I chaired the Margaret Annis Boys Trust. So, I had a long history of loving parks and then a long history with the Community Foundation working in that space to try and increase the beautification within the city and activate our public space.

Dan: You know it's funny, we were talking to Brian earlier, Leslie, and he mentioned an article that you had sent to him. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Leslie: Well, in the mid-nineties, ‘place-making' was becoming part of the vernacular of urban planning and there was a wonderful article in the New York Times about a small park in New York that has been developed and became a real place-making symbol within that area and kind of a rallying point for the community. And so I forwarded that to Brian because we'd had similar discussions about parks in Oklahoma City and what they had meant to us as individuals and so that again deepened the conversation that we were having about parks and public space in Oklahoma City.

Dan: I want to talk a little bit more about your overall philosophy when it comes to beautification. I know this is a passion.

Leslie: Well, beautification is something that I think is primarily an interest to all people. I think beautification and beauty enhance life, whether it's in art, music, or a beautifully designed garden. So, I think it's just a human nature thing. I think beauty is important for the aesthetic quality. I think that in our city, beautiful public space can really facilitate a pride of place within our city. It enhances the city life. I think it can become an economic generator for the city if you have beautiful public spaces. I think it's attractive for businesses and families that move into the city. So, I think at a very human level, beauty is pleasing wherever you find it. I think it has civic value, in terms of pride of place, place-making, economic development…

Dan: You know, you've also contributed to the initiative in the capacity of a donor. What would you say to other donors, who may be interested in the same areas but really don't know how to create that impact?

Leslie: I think, as I say I've consumed the Kool-Aid about the Oklahoma City Community Foundation. I always think that's a great place to start when you have a passion. Whether it's parks and public spaces or some other public charity, I think the Community Foundation is really gifted at matching the passions of individuals with impact in the community. Whether it's something unique or it's something that they can direct you to [for which] someone else has a similar passion, I think the Community Foundation is a great resource. We have examples throughout our 50-year history of people who've had a particular passion, like Margaret Annis Boys, who left a planned gift to the Community Foundation which has grown over the years and has really supported a lot of the beautification efforts in Oklahoma City. So we have large gifts and we have small gifts. I think that a good place to start is to check in with the Community Foundation and see if someone else shares that passion and they can direct you in the right direction. Of course, if you're interested we always love to have people involved in the Greater Oklahoma City Parks & Trails Foundation, which is a new foundation that came about as a result of the comprehensive parks plan in Oklahoma City. There was a suggestion that we needed that type of advocacy in the city to support the type of work of parks and public space. So that's an opportunity to get involved. I would say also to make your interest and your passions known to your councilperson and to your parks commissioner. There are some parks that have their own friends group, like the Myriad Gardens, Scissortail, Friends of Will Rogers Garden...so there are lots of opportunities.

Dan: Absolutely. Leslie, it's been an honor to have you come on the podcast today. We know you're a busy person so we know how special it is to have you on as a guest. Thank you for being here.

Leslie: Thank you for the invitation!

Dan: If you want to learn more about our Parks & Public Space Initiative, go to occf.org/parks for all the details and any current projects. Our next round of parks grants closes on January 15, but if you know your neighborhood association or school might be interested to apply, feel free to get in touch with us and start that conversation early so we can advise you along the way. And also, if you want to be part of our spring flower initiative, if you want some bulbs for your neighborhood or park, don't forget to let us know prior to Oct. 28 – that deadline is coming up fairly quickly – so go to the show notes or episode description right now to find out how you can apply.

Last but not least, we are in the middle of our training season for nonprofits with virtual group sessions on how to navigate the new GiveSmartOKC platform or how to set up your organization for endowment success. Please visit occf.org/coetraining to learn how to sign up today and make sure you're on our email lists so you receive all the news about grant deadlines and other up-to-date information.

Thanks for joining us today and I can't wait to explore another impact area of the Community Foundation, with a new episode of Creating Impact Through Giving, available every third Tuesday of the month.

Creating Impact Through Giving is brought to you by the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, a nonprofit that works with donors to create charitable funds that benefit our community both now and in the future.

If you want to be notified about future episodes, don't forget to subscribe to our email newsletter at occf.org/subscribe. For all episodes and more information, visit occf.org/impact.

Thanks for listening today and I'd like to leave you with this: Everybody wants to create some kind of impact in your community – What would you like to do? Contact the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, and let us help you turn your legacy into a reality today. See you next time.