Community Parks and Philanthropy

There has always been great interest by philanthropists in donating to community parks, particularly as memorials. Cities, on the other hand, have often been resistant to such proposals, leaving many donors upset and critical of local officials. Officials respond that they have to comply with a series of regulations (and staff is often reluctant to speed up/change the process for one applicant). Cities rightly cite concerns that in receiving the one-time donation, that the city will incur on-going maintenance costs.

I recently saw firsthand in Sarasota, FL a public-private partnership to rebuild a community park that is truly a win-win solution. I attended on a blustery February day the dedication of the Dr. Eloise Werlin park. I came because Eloise was my sister but left impressed by the cooperative work between my brother-in-law, Ernest (Doc) Werlin, the City of Sarasota and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. It’s a model that other communities can and should follow.

Panoramic of Eloice Werlin Park

Panoramic of Eloise Werlin Park

Eloise and Ernest lived most of their professional lives in the New York City area but retired to Sarasota. She developed a chemo-resistant strain of breast cancer (ironic because as a psychologist, she worked with breast cancer patients). While undergoing treatment, she would walk along the causeway from Sarasota to St. Armand’s Key.

After her passing in 2011, Doc wanted to find a suitable memorial and focused on a neglected pocket park at the beginning of the bridge. He initially approached City staff about the project and was met with usual objections – planning process and future maintenance costs. Doc is a very persistent man and he eventually was introduced to Scott Anderson of The Gulf Coast Community Foundation. Together, they worked with City Manager Tom Barwin and City of Sarasota Public Works General Manager Todd Kucharski. Both Barwin and Kucharski were very supportive about the park project and helped Doc explain his ideas to the City Commissioners. Once Doc explained his commitment to not only initially enhance the park but establish an endowment, he received overwhelming support from Sarasota’s commissioners.

Doc had a solid concept for the park but was willing to accept input from City staff on design and materials (such as for the kid’s playground equipment). Mayor Willie Shaw led the effort to waive a number of requirements. Public Works Department Director — found money to repair a metal gazebo. Doc and friends contributed to a fund, initially funded at $50,000, for ongoing maintenance. The Gulf Coast Foundation will administer that endowment for the next 55 years.

This is really an example of individuals, cities and nonprofits working together for the betterment of the community. The result is a bright airy space where children play and adults contemplate the sail boats passing by. I can see my sister sitting on a bench, reading a book and watching the setting sun. Eloise would have been pleased.