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Michigan Residents Vote Yes on Parks:
Top Strategies from Successful Millage Campaigns

By Desiree Stanfield


Despite Michigan’s downturned economy, voters spoke volumes when they approved millages for four parks and recreation agencies in the August 2010 primary election.
“People realize parks provide value not only for themselves, but also for the community as a whole,” Michigan Recreation and Parks Association past President Linda Walter said. “We enhance neighborhood stability, generate economic impact with facilities, create connections through programs, and make communities a more desirable place to live, work, and play.”

The city of Lansing and Oakland, Saginaw, and St. Clair County parks and recreation departments each received resounding support at the ballot box in August. Read on to learn about each organization’s top five millage campaign successes.Children & police dog

City of Lansing
Pop. 113,712

Facilities: 114 parks (includes three cemeteries, one municipal golf course, four community centers, two outdoor/one indoor swimming pools, artificial ice rink, nature center and Turner Dodge historic home)

Annual cost: $50 for a home with a market value of $100,000 (1 mil)

The Lansing Department of Parks and Recreation started with the purchase of the city cemetery in 1852. The first park millage was approved in 1990 and received five renewals. According to then Director Murdock Jemerson (Jemerson retired, Brett Kaschinske is the new director), the 2010 millage vote had the largest margin with a 73 percent approval.

“We started our communication efforts with a mailing to all absentee voters in early July. Getting absentee voters has been the key to the success of our park millage campaigns,” Jemerson said. “We always have a letter endorsing the millage signed by one or two very influential senior citizens because seniors vote.”

Awareness efforts were coordinated by a separate citizens group called “The Committee to Save Lansing Parks,” which raised approximately $4,000 through friends groups, fundraisers, and private donations. The funds were used to purchase campaign yard signs, two postcard mailers and campaign literature.

“The parks millage brings in $2.3 million annually,” said Jemerson. “Approximately half of that goes to general fund operations and the other half goes to capital improvements for the parks system.”

Top 5 Successes
1. Mailed postcards to absentee and primary voters.
2. Communicated to youth and adult sports program participants.
3. Delivered literature door to door.
4. Installed yard signs to create awareness.
5. Encouraged senior citizens to write support letters.

The committee focused on educating citizens that the millage was a renewal of an existing tax. “We had two other millage proposals on this ballot for the library and bus system, so we wanted to make sure everyone knew the one for parks wasn’t an increase,” he said. “The two other millages also passed, but the parks millage had the highest margin.”

Oakland County Park
In August 2010, voters in Oakland County cast their ballots in support of the parks millage with a 76 percent approval rating—the highest ever in parks history.

Oakland County
pop. 1.2 million

Facilities: 13 parks and golf courses with 7,000 acres; 68 miles of trails, day-use parks, campgrounds, waterparks, nature centers and golf courses

Annual cost: $21 for a home with a market value of $175,000 (.245 mil)

Oakland County Parks and Recreation began welcoming guests in 1966 with the acquisition of a former family farm/summer home of wealthy Detroiters. The 269-acre parcel was named Addison Oaks County Park and repurposed as a day-use park, campground, and banquet center.

The following year, a five-year .25 millage was established to operate, maintain, improve, and acquire parks and recreation areas. In 1980, the renewal was extended to a 10-year .25 millage. Due to economic concerns facing the area, the parks commission recommended renewal of the existing reduced .2415 millage in 2010.

In August 2010, voters cast their ballots in support with a 76.46 percent approval rating, the highest ever in parks history.

“The millage accounts for nearly 60 percent of our operating monies. For the 2011 budget of $25 million, approximately $12.8 million will come from millage revenues and the rest from charges for services, planned use of balance, investments and other income,” Director Dan Stencil said.

The millage awareness effort started 18 months prior to the vote. The millage team included staff from operations, planning, recreation programs and services, communications and marketing. The group met monthly, then weekly six months prior to the primary. An e-newsletter sent weekly to all full-time and part-time staff included a countdown clock plus calls to action such as gathering names and addresses for mailings and locations for yard signs.

Top 5 Successes
1. Conducted face-to-face visits with nearly all of the county’s 62 cities, villages, and townships over a three-month period.
2. Engaged staff to educate park users, special interest groups, and volunteers starting six months before the vote.
3. Created “What You Value” communication pieces that explained the renewal and distributed to staff, park users, local businesses, and absentee voters.
4. Used emails to park users and social media efforts including Facebook and Twitter.
5. Received support from Citizens for Oakland County Parks and Recreation, a group that formed an honorary committee with political leaders, placed newspaper ads, and bought its own yard signs.

“Customer service and operations standards are of upmost importance every single day. That’s what keeps visitors returning and using word of mouth to share their exper-iences,” Stencil said. “If the grass isn’t cut or the bathrooms aren’t clean, you can bet what your guests are saying isn’t favorable. You should have the mindset that every day is millage day.”

Water Park
St. Clair County parks millage funds get distributed to the local units of government in the county on a per capita basis. Literally every park in the county has been improved by the millage.

St. Clair County
pop. 164,235

Facilities: Six parks comprising 805 acres with county fair facilities, a historic village, splashpad, pavilions, beach, trails, and Fort Gratiot Light Station—the oldest lighthouse in Michigan

Annual cost: $25 for a home
with a market value of $100,000 (0.4954 mil)

St. Clair County Parks has seen increased support for its millage over the years. In 1994, it passed at 52 percent; in August 2010, it was renewed for six additional years with 71.49 percent approval rating.

Staff started preparing for the vote in December 2009. A newsletter was mailed to 72,000 addresses and posted on the system’s website and Facebook. “Our mid-July issue focused on how the parks system invested millage funds the previous six years,” said Director Mark Brochu. “We also told voters what projects listed in the master recreation plan would be pursued if the millage renewal passed.”

These projects included paved mountain biking and equestrian trails, canoe and kayak launches, building maintenance, and parking improvements.

Another approach focused on the tourism impact of county parks on the local community. According to the Blue Water Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, visitors to St. Clair County spend an average of $116 per day and $366 per person for overnight stays.

“One of our strongest selling points is our program that distributes 25 percent of the millage funds collected each year to all of the local units of government on a per capita basis. Literally every park in St. Clair County has been improved by the county parks millage,” Brochu said. “We demonstrated to our residents not only the significant impact we make in their quality of life, but also the value we provide to the local economy.”

Top 5 Successes
1. Strategic yard sign placement: quality locations over quantity of signs.
2. Ordered car window clings, provided by a “People for Parks” group that ran a “Vote Yes” campaign. The group also paid for the yard signs, radio ads, and parade entry fees.
3. Aired radio ads the week prior to the election on two stations. The message was that every community in St. Clair County benefits from the county parks millage.
4. Participated in the two largest summer parades—the Port Huron Rotary Parade and the Yale Bologna Festival Parade.
5. Encouraged citizens to write support letters to local newspapers.

Previously, funds were used to purchase newspaper ads. Since the daily and weekly papers supported the renewal, staff decided to forgo spending money on ad space.
“We believe that due to the poor economy, many of our supporters truly believed that our millage might not be renewed and that the county board, which does not contribute to the parks and recreation budget, could not give any money to parks. Those supporters made extra efforts to make sure that they voted,” Brochu said.

In August 2010, voters approved the Saginaw County park millage by 68 percent. The campaign committee’s most creative idea was forming an impromptu “Moms for Parks” press conference.

Saginaw County
pop. 210,000

Facilities: Six parks with 683 acres featuring a lake, two nature preserves, one rail trail and two passive recreation parks (pavilions, fishing, etc.)

Annual cost: $8 for a home with a market value of $100,000 (.1615 mil)

The Saginaw County Parks and Recreation Commission was formed in 1969 and currently manages six regional parks including the Saginaw Valley Rail Trail. The system has had a millage in place since 1990; it has passed three times—November 1990, August 2000, and August 2010.

It failed once in August 1990, when it was placed on the ballot as a combined millage including the Parks and Recreation Commission; Hartley Outdoor Education Center; Historical Society of Saginaw County; and Saginaw Community Enrichment Commission. According to Director John Schmude, voters were confused on what exactly they were voting for and how much money would be going to each of the entities.

In August 2010, voters approved the millage renewal by 68 percent. The system’s 2010 budget is projected at $901,869 of which $813,547 is millage funded.

Schmude said there was no friends group in place, but there was a nominating committee with a budget of $1,775. The group included parks commission members and individuals from the public. The group started meeting biweekly in May.

“The millage campaign committee put the majority of funds into yard signs and 4’ x 8’ signs,” Schmude said. “The most creative idea was forming an impromptu ‘Moms for Parks’ press conference which generated coverage from a local TV station and a few local newspapers.”

Top 5 Successes
1. Erected campaign signage—yard signs and 4x8 foot signs.
2. Held a “Moms for Parks” press conference two days before the election.
3. Encouraged a letter-writing campaign to the local newspaper.
4. Made presentations to service clubs.
5. Created a website to promote awareness of the campaign.

“The next time around we’ll seek endorsements from the chamber of commerce, local unions, and other groups. We learned a lesson that we need to reach people where they are active, not only in our parks, but in other places as well,” Schmude said.

Whether an agency’s next millage renewal is five or 10 years away, park leaders say that the most important take-away from the 2010 victories is that elections are not won or lost within the course of an election cycle.

At Oakland County Parks and Recreation, “we’re fond of saying ‘every day is millage day’,” Executive Officer Dan Stencil said. “What matters is how we are providing the essential services that make people visit us today and vote for us tomorrow.”

Desiree Stanfield is communications supervisor for the Oakland County Parks
and Recreation Department. You may reach her at 248-858-4627 or

Reprinted with permission from MRPA PROfessional Vol 3, Issue 1, 2011.



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