Detroit Regional Chamber > Mackinac Policy Conference > The Pandemic and Parks: COVID-19 Reinforced the Value of Public Spaces and Outdoor Recreation, Need for Investment

The Pandemic and Parks: COVID-19 Reinforced the Value of Public Spaces and Outdoor Recreation, Need for Investment

September 20, 2021

When a global pandemic kept people home from their offices, schools, businesses, and vacations, millions of Michiganders “re-discovered” their public parks, where they could safely hang with friends and family and decompress. This increased attendance underscores the need for increased investment and staffing solutions.

“The true value of public parks is a lesson that must outlast the pandemic to ensure that these resources and the significant value they bring to us intrinsically and economically last for generations to come,” said Amy McMillan, director of Huron-Clinton Metroparks.

McMillan was joined by fellow panelists Alicia Bradford, parks director for the Office of the Wayne County Executive, and Dan Eichinger, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, in a conversation moderated by the City of Detroit’s and WWJ Newsradio 950’s Vickie Thomas.

Managing Increased Attendance

Thomas aptly described the state’s parks and public as “our saving graces” throughout the pandemic when so many were seeking a way to escape and connect safely. This is evidenced by significant increases in attendance at parks across the state and participation in outdoor recreation activities like golfing, camping, biking, and boating.

Despite experiencing declining rates over several years, McMillan shared that attendance increased by 35%. Bradford noted similar increases in Wayne County’s parks – around 25-30%. Eichinger also shared how these increases impacted a key milestone for the state; though the state usually reaches its one millionth camp night in October, it was able to reach that benchmark by August this year.

Staffing, Infrastructure Maintenance Remain a Challenges

Despite the positive impacts of the increased attendance driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, the rapid influx posed both challenges and opportunities for improving spaces and services. Just as with the broader business community, staffing and labor shortages continue to be an issue for the state’s parks and public spaces.

Bradford cited particular difficulties with staffing maintenance workers in Wayne County. Competition with other industries and businesses offering signing bonuses and new benefits has proven difficult, especially for these entities that have restricted government funding.

Further, this uptick in traffic to local outdoor spaces has taken a toll on physical infrastructure, exacerbating existing needs for targeting investment and updates.

“There are a lot of facilities that were brand spanking new in the 1950s and the 1960s, and we’re still kind of coasting on the fumes of those investments,” Eichinger said. “There’s a lot of work for us to do, I think, in you know, trying to build up a contemporary system that is relatively easy for us to manage, that the facilities are in good condition, where it’s relatively easier for us to recruit and retain employees.”

What’s Needed Next

Though these challenges remain, they go to show just how essential these outdoor resources are for Michigan’s residents and their physical, mental, and economic health. These spaces should be treated as priorities in terms of strategic investment and funding. In the meantime, leaders are exploring innovative ways to update and optimize visitors’ experiences.

McMillan, for instance, shared how Metroparks is using allocated funds to focus on updating trails and improving accessibility.

Bradford noted a trend of visitors requesting WiFi in certain areas of their parks where they have been working remotely, and although they encourage people to use the parks to enjoy and disconnect, her team is receptive to their visitors’ needs.

“We’ve been tapped on to look at putting in electric vehicle charging stations,” Bradford said. “And then just really opening up and engaging our waterways and promoting those even more.”

Eichinger also acknowledged the state’s responsibility to increase its efforts in urban and underserved areas as an essential step toward the successful, inclusive future of these valued spaces.

“I would like to see us be a lot more intentional about being present and active in urban communities providing outdoor recreation services,” he said.

Thank you to Huron-Clinton Metroparks for hosting this session.