In the Capital City, Tension Over Use of the Public Square

June 22, 2009

For release June 24 and thereafter (700 words)
 
Long before it was fashionable to advocate for parkland and civic space, Indiana’s founding fathers wrote the idea into our Constitution. The framers didn’t want future generations selling off prime public land: the Statehouse, Monument Circle or Military Park, in particular. So in Article 15, section 9, they declared those three properties “shall not be sold or leased.”
     
That language is why Indianapolis activist Clarke Kahlo has challenged the fencing off of Military Park in Downtown Indy for special events that require patrons to pay admission. “Essentially, Military Park has been privatized,” Kahlo argues. “They’re allowing it to be controlled by private entities contrary to the Constitution.”
   
Donated to Indiana by Congress in 1827, Military Park was the city’s first public park and site of the first State Fair in 1852. The 14-acre green space, referred to then as the Parade Ground, was used during the Civil War as a marshalling area for Union troops.   
   
On any given day, you might find joggers or picnickers there, but some weekends it’s closed off for functions. A recent example was the June 6 Vintage Indiana, “a festival of wine, food and fun,” for which tickets cost $25 at the gate. Next up,  Eiteljorg Museum’s Indian Market and Festival June 27-28. Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 at the gate. Then there’s Rib America Fest 2009, on Labor Day weekend, which costs $5 to attend and “no food or beverages allowed.” Organizations that rent the park pay fees based on the size of the crowd and their not-for-profit or commercial status.
   
Although the dictionary defines lease as “a contract granting use or occupation of property during a specified period in exchange for a specified rent,” the state says these short-term events are fine. “We believe these types of uses are not ‘leases’ and do not violate the Indiana constitution,” the attorney general’s office said. Robert Whitt, executive director of White River State Park, said the commission collects about a quarter-million dollars a year renting out the park and other commission-operated facilities.
   
Marcia J. Oddi, editor of the Indiana Law Blog, said a similar division of opinion existed at the constitutional convention of 1850-51.
   
During the debates, one lawmaker — Mr. Niles — expressed concern about frequent offers from private parties to buy Monument Circle and stated, “my desire is that the public grounds within this city shall be preserved as a beautiful ornament to the town and the State.”
   
Later, Mr. Badger moved that the Circle and Parade Ground be sold with proceeds going to schools. Niles argued back, “We lose twice as much every year, on account of the bad system of managing the school funds, as all the public grounds in this city would sell for.” He went on to say, “Public squares and parks in cities are hardly second in their humanizing influences to public schools.”
   
Thankfully, Niles won the argument, Oddi says. “Where would we be now if the politicians in 1850 had sold off the state lands for momentary gain?”
   
The issue is not unique to Indianapolis. In Denver, citizens have objected to plans to rent out seven public parks for music festivals and rock concerts saying the income potential did not justify keeping people out of their parks. In New York City, controversy has surrounded Randall’s Island where an agreement between the parks department and a private school consortium would set aside half of the park’s ballfields for private school use in exchange for $2.2 million a year plus $400,000 in upkeep fees,
   
The Project for Public Spaces in New York City said a balancing act is required when public parks are used for private purposes. “Commercial activity must not diminish the essentially public nature of the place where it is staged. Events in public spaces should remain accessible to all users, without a fee or invite list.”  Using that standard, the Military Park policy falls short.
   
It’s more than a matter of semantics about the meaning of the word lease. It’s a matter of public policy that deserves thoughtful conversation. Should Military Park be accessible at all times or should the law be changed to accommodate events that restrict access yet may serve the public good?

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.



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