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Trends in Local Park and Recreation Department Finances and Staffing in the Early Twenty-First Century

Nicholas A. Pitas, Austin G. Barrett, Andrew J. Mowen


This paper is a replication of a 2003 study by Crompton and Kaczynski, analyzing local park and recreation agency financing and staffing trends. Whereas the original analysis examined data from 1964–1965 to 1999–2000, this paper covers financial data from 2000–2001 to 2013–2014, and employment data from 2000–2001 to 2014–2015. In light of the housing crisis, Great Recession, and subsequent economic recovery, the early twenty-first century provides a compelling backdrop for this replication analysis. Although the American economy experienced smaller economic downturns during the original study period, the recession that occurred during the current period was the most severe since the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Utilizing census data, the current analysis monitors four areas identified in the original analysis: i) self-generated revenue, ii) operating expenditures, iii) capital expenditures, and iv) employment. Crompton and Kaczynski (2003) postulated that based on unprecedented annual expenditures, the latter half of the 1990s would eventually be considered the “golden era” of local parks and recreation. Data from the current analysis indicate that high levels of support continued until the Great Recession, which impacted local government spending as a whole, and particularly parks and recreation. In adjusted dollars, total park and recreation agency expenditures fell annually every year in the post-recession period, by more than $6.5 billion from 2007-2008 to 2013-2014. Park and recreation expenditures were reduced by a greater amount relative to competing services, accounting for a smaller proportion of total local government spending. Park capital expenditures were disproportionately cut during this period, falling by more than $5 billion from 2007–2008 to 2013–2014. Self-generated revenue accounted for approximately one-quarter of total, and one-third of operational expenditures by park and recreation agencies, lending support for trends identified in the original analysis. Local park and recreation agencies disproportionately cut full-time positions in response to the economic downturn, with more than 14,000 full-time positions lost in the post-recession period. More than 17,000 part-time positions were added post-recession, indicating an acceleration of the shift away from full-time employment noted by Crompton and Kaczynski (2003). Implications for park professionals and researchers, as well as the need for ongoing trend analysis, are discussed.

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Local government; public parks and recreation; funding; replication; trends

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