La Mesa Makes a Project Out of Parks

The City of La Mesa won an Award of Excellence in the League Partners category of the 2006 Helen Putnam Award for Excellence program. For more information, visit

In the mid-1990s, the City of La Mesa was a 95 percent built-out urban community with a dire need for sports fields and updated parks but no open land and no funding for park infrastructure. In response, a collaborative of public and private agencies worked together to create the PARKS Project and enhance the city’s recreational facilities. Approved by the city council in 1995, the PARKS Project Master Plan maximizes existing parks and school sites, using undeveloped or underutilized property to create playing field space.

According to the 2000 census, 19.8 percent of La Mesa’s population is under age 18. Engaging children in meaningful, adult- supervised, after-school activities is a constant challenge. Safe parks, recreational areas and youth sports are vital to that effort. La Mesa has 14 parks with eight sports fields for total park acreage of 144 acres. In addition to sports fields at park sites, the city programs 27 sports fields at school sites. And while La Mesa has an above average ratio of parkland to population, most of the parks are old and antiquated.

A park and open space needs assessment completed in 2002 showed a shortage of fields for sports in La Mesa. The assessment involved a community survey, extensive community focus groups and community leader interviews. The assessment indicated that community need and use dictated three additional soccer fields, 2.6 additional football fields, one additional full-sized baseball field and 1.8 additional senior softball fields. The completion of the PARKS Project has addressed the shortage of field space significantly by adding one football/soccer field, one soccer-only field, one full-sized baseball field and two Little League fields. These fields became part of the Junior Seau Sports Complex, named for a professional football player who played for the San Diego Chargers.

Another phase of the PARKS project revamped Briercrest Park, which was underutilized due to its inappropriate topography. With grant support, it was transformed into a park that’s accessible for people with disabilities and enhanced with public art. An area of the park has been leased to a developer who will build a complex for older adults, and a portion of the lease payments will support the maintenance costs of the park.

Nonprofit Foundation Created To Build Partnerships and Raise Money

Due to the size and estimated cost of the PARKS Project, the city recruited public and private partners to help complete the project. It began as a collaboration of five partners: the City of La Mesa, East County Family YMCA, La Mesa-Spring Valley School District, the Challenge Center and the La Mesa Athletic Council. The magnitude of the project in terms of scope and cost led to the development of a private nonprofit foundation called the La Mesa Park and Recreation Foundation. Its mission is to develop quality projects and programs that provide positive activities for youth, strengthen family bonds and enhance community pride. Community leaders make up the 15-member volunteer foundation board of directors.

As a nonprofit, the foundation can access funding from other foundations, corporations and private donors. The foundation spearheaded the fund-raising campaign for the PARKS Project. Corporate donors, including Wells Fargo Bank, Union Bank of California, EDCO Disposal Corporation, Cox Communications and SDG&E/Sempra Energy, lined up to support this innovative project. More than $1.2 million was matched by approximately $5.5 million in public grants to create these two park projects.

The resources of these partners were leveraged to build tournament-quality athletic fields and specially designed facilities to improve community health through organized and individual sports, fitness and recreation.

New Parks = Community, Financial And Development Success

The PARKS Project is a creative approach to enhancing and funding facilities and maintenance costs in a community. The first two phases of the project were completed in 2001, and the final phase was completed in 2006. The project results have been outstanding:  

  • The joint vision of the community partners solved a pressing community need that was too large for one entity to accomplish on its own.
  • Over $6.9 million was raised for the completion of the PARKS Project. Of that amount, the City of La Mesa has contributed only $500,000, with the remaining dollars from outside sources. Community partnerships have opened the door to alternative funding, eliminating total dependence on the city’s tax base.
  • Private business can bring revenue, attractive development and community clout in support of efforts that benefit their business and the city. A partnership with a developer who will build on city property adjacent to the park will support the daily maintenance costs at Briercrest Park on a long-term basis.
  • Volunteer involvement fosters a respectful working relationship and a better understanding between public entities such as the city, the school district and nonprofit entities, including the YMCA and the local garden club. This creates a positive synergy and pride in the work they do for their community parks.
  • The creation of a separate private nonprofit foundation provides a long-term strategy for protecting community recreational services from the ebb and flow of the city’s tax base. Its support of major capital improvement projects for the city leverages public funds with private dollars.
  • The foundation board of directors creates opportunities to develop volunteer leadership that will ultimately enrich the entire community.

The PARKS Project is providing residents with recreational, social and physical activities for today and tomorrow.

Contact: Yvonne Garrett, director of community services, City of La Mesa; phone: (619) 667-1311; e-mail:

This article appears in the April 2007 issue of Western City
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