Capital Improvements Overview

Parks Departments across the country are struggling to make ends meet. Because you’ve been so good at advocacy, the Parks Department will probably expect your passionate group to raise a significant portion—or maybe even all—of the cost to build the skatepark.

There is an important consideration when looking for skatepark funds.

It’s true that Parks Departments put a heavier expectation on the community to raise funds for skatepark projects than traditional ball sport fields. There was no expectation put on toddlers to raise funds for the playgrounds around town, and few bicyclists or joggers ever had bake sales to pay for the new trails criss-crossing the area. If there is bias in a community against skateboarders, it’s often reflected in an expectation that these “scruffy teenagers” should pay entirely for the community skatepark with the belief that this allows the Department to show support with no expectation that they might have to do anything. Imagine their surprise when the skateboarders show up a few years later ready to pay for the skatepark.

A Google search for “baseball field fundraiser” produces a smattering of specific projects, but “skatepark fundraiser” yields pages and pages of specific skatepark projects seeking funds. Why do skateboarders have to do so much more work than other people that need recreational access? Is there an institutional bias against skateboarding? Well, perhaps. But knowing the answer to this question does not necessarily help your effort gain acceptance.

It’s not uncommon for a city to expect the skateboarders to pay for the entire skatepark. The city is basically saying, “If you want a skatepark, you can pay for it. We expect you to donate the skatepark to the city and we’ll manage it.” In these cases the city has donated the land and agreed to maintain the facility. Some cities have even asked the skateboarding community to donate the design and construction funds as well as an annual maintenance donation.

The cost to maintain a park can exceed the cost of creating it within a few years.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are cities that pay for the skateparks entirely and put no fundraising expectation on the skateboarding community. That’s very nice of them, but the formula that leads to the greatest skatepark success is when the skateboarders work closely with the city to seek funds together.

An equitable allocation of funding contributions is to have the local skateboarding community raise funds for the design services, and the skateboarders WITH the City seek funds together for construction.

What Are Capital Improvements?

Capital improvement is a fancy term for a “new permanent project.” Capital improvements include things like walking paths, tennis courts, park renovations, baseball fields, and so on.

Capital improvements for public projects are carefully planned and reviewed. The final capital improvement plan, or CIP, is usually updated every few years. It’s extremely valuable to have a skatepark, or skateparks, on the CIP. It’s the “official record” of what the city plans on doing.

Getting onto the local Parks CIP is a terrific opportunity that every skatepark advocate should be working for. You can contact your local Parks Department to find out when your local CIP will be reviewed. CIP reviews have a public-input component; the plan is developed by the city and presented at a public meeting (usually at a series of public meetings), and modified based on public input. Keep your eyes peeled for public CIP meetings! When you see them, show up, and indicate that skateparks should be on the plan.

Take a look at your town’s website and see if you can find the capital improvement plan for your area’s Parks Department.

When discussing skatepark costs with the Parks Department, it is important to know how parks are funded.

Money comes in (revenue), and money gets spent (expense). Together, revenue and expenses comprise the Parks Department budget. A budget is balanced when the revenue equals or is greater than its expenses. When a budget has more expenses than revenue, Parks Departments must make difficult decisions. Some common impacts of a Parks Department that doesn’t have enough money are: not maintaining parks to their regular standard, reducing the hours or closing facilities, and laying off staff. Most Parks Departments in the nation are struggling to balance their budgets.

The bulk of a Parks Department’s budget is allocated to staff salaries and maintaining the properties it currently has. Creating new parks can be expensive, but a Parks director will be more concerned about the ongoing cost of maintaining that facility than the cost to create it. For example, if a new facility costs $100,000 to create and $20,000 a year to maintain, the cost of maintenance will exceed the cost to create it within 5 years. This is a common concern with facilities requiring a lot of maintenance, like municipal swimming pools and golf courses.

There are two types of ongoing costs: Maintenance and Operations. These are often referred to collectively as “M&O.” M&O is the major category of expenses that includes all of the ongoing costs required to run the department, take care of the facilities, and provide any services that are hosted or staff at the facility (such as lifeguards at a swimming pool). M&O is a term that comes up a lot when talking about park development. You will hear “M&O,” “maintenance,” and “operational expenses” used interchangeably.

Maintenance ensures the facility is safe, clean, and sustainable. Operations covers any programming support that occurs at that facility. For example, emptying the trash cans and mowing would be considered maintenance, while hosting classes and scheduling staff would be operations. M&O also includes the salaries and expenses of all the executive and office staff, (and is specifically considered an operational expense). Maintenance and operations for skateparks are covered thoroughly in Chapter 5.

Facilities, whether they are skateparks or playgrounds, cost money to build and maintain. The cost of creating the facility is only part of the cost. The “total cost of ownership” (TCO) is an important term to understand. The TCO is the combined cost of creating a facility and maintaining it for a period of time. For example, a new baseball complex may cost $560,000 to create and then $59,000 a year to maintain and operate. So, the TCO for that new baseball complex would be the total amount it costs to build and maintain that facility. If the cost to maintain a facility is significant, the operational cost can exceed the cost of creating it. This is an important concept for advocates to understand. Once a new facility is built, the Parks Department has an obligation to maintain it. This is why Parks Directors are sensitive to the maintenance costs.


Capital improvements are much easier to fund than maintenance and operational expenses. It is embarrassing for Parks Departments to build facilities then not have the money to maintain them. This is why you may see parks that are not watered or mowed regularly. These are sometimes called “brownfield parks” because the grass is brown. Park properties that don’t receive the recommended maintenance are included on the Parks Department’s “deferred maintenance” list, meaning that they are postponing (or deferring) maintenance until funds are available. You will rarely see concrete skateparks on a deferred maintenance list because they are so inexpensive to maintain.

These are the two major categories of a Parks Department’s budget. When times are tough, these budgets are carefully reviewed and some tough decisions are made. Usually the capital improvement side of the budget is eliminated first. The last thing a Parks Department needs is more facilities that they’ll need to take care of. The exception to this rule is capital improvements that reduce M&O in some way. For example, renovating an aging facility by installing new energy-efficient improvements may cost a lot of money in the short-term but will significantly reduce that facility’s long-term M&O expenses. If the budget is in real trouble, after delaying any new construction, Parks Directors will look at deferring maintenance at existing parks. Finally they’ll consider reducing staff hours or positions.


In addition to the ongoing concern of M&O expenses, there are other considerations that can influence how much value a project represents to a Parks Department:

  • Inclusion of adjustable fees and charges
  • Commercial activity within the facility
  • Facility-based partnership with nonprofit organization
  • Use of volunteer services
  • Facilities that meet a specific philanthropic need

Whenever it’s appropriate, you should talk about the skatepark in terms of its total cost of ownership over 5 or even 10 years. Skatepark M&O is very low, particularly for concrete skateparks, so its long-term value to the community is much higher when the cost of creation is combined with its low M&O over a long period of time. A skatepark’s TCO is not going to double over the course of 5 or 10 years like so many other facilities, and this will appeal to budget-conscious Parks Directors.