Sara Hensley Turns Over a New Leaf

The new PARD director has big ideas – to realize them, she'll have to raise big bucks

Sara Hensley Turns Over a New Leaf
Photo by John Anderson

"Sara Hensley is a rock star!"

Council Member Randi Shade wasn't suggesting that Austin's new Parks & Recreation Department director should leap onstage in a glitter suit – rather, she was recognizing Hens­ley's firepower as an agent of change.

"She's really shaken things up in six months, and I love it," Shade continued. "We have terrific leadership now. I like her entrepreneurial spirit, her focus on getting things done – and she's fearless about turning everything upside-down, if that's what it takes." Shade added, "She's brought a level of sophistication that's desperately needed – and she sees citizens as an essential part of the destiny we want for our parks."

Among Austin's signature charms is its easy integration of greenspace, water, and nature into the urban fabric, captured by PARD's motto: "A city within a park." That presumably means high standards and high expectations – yet the city's funding and management of its parks system has long struggled to keep pace. We use city parks heavily yet lag in their upkeep. "The good news is people love their parks and facilities in Austin," said Hensley recently. "And the bad news is people love their parks and facilities in Austin – to death! But I'll take that any day over a community that doesn't like its parks enough to stand up for them."

Austin has much to take pride in. In 2004, PARD received a prestigious National Recre­a­tion and Park Association Gold Medal Award – recognizing it as a top-tier system in the U.S. (after three previous nominations). In 2006, the pools program received a NRPA Excellence in Aquatics Award. PARD also won national accreditation in 2007 by the Commission for Accreditation of Parks and Recreation Agencies – an honor then earned by only 73 U.S. cities. Such big-city honors don't come easily, considering that PARD oversees more than 16,682 acres of land encompassing 206 parks, 12 preserves, and 170 miles of hike-and-bike trails. It must staff, program, and care for 172 athletic fields, 108 tennis courts, 90 playscapes, 47 swimming pools, 20 recreation centers, five golf courses, six amphitheatres, three senior activity centers, lakefront areas with two beach facilities, plus the Austin Area Garden Center (in the Zilker Botanical Garden) and Austin Nature & Science Center. PARD also runs the Dougherty Arts Center and four museums – though it may soon hand those over to a new city cultural arts department.

Yet inadequate funding over decades – leading to deferred maintenance, outdated programs and facilities, land acquired but never improved, and other missed opportunities – has fated PARD and the urban greenspaces to a genteel, albeit leafy poverty. At city budget time, particularly in economic downturns, funds for parks perennially get cut, despite citizen laments. PARD has never assertively obtained a level of city, community, and public-private investment adequate to fully realize public aspirations – and protect one of Austin's unique, competitive assets as a city.

What's Hensley's biggest surprise been, since she started the job Dec. 1? "How far behind we are as a city," she shoots back, with characteristic candidness. "We have to get back in the community." And for her, she says, that means planning not for the community, but with it.

Getting to Austin

In announcing Hensley's hiring last September, after a national search that included fresh public input on priorities and the finalist candidates, City Manager Marc Ott said he selected Hensley because "she understands Austin's love of the outdoors, its stewardship of the environment, and the goal of Austin becoming the fittest city in the country." Hensley came from Phoenix (population 1.5 million), where she directed about 1,100 employees and an annual PARD budget of $110 million; Austin's PARD is half that size, with about 570 employees and an annual budget around $55 million. A 25-year professional, Hensley previously led city parks departments in California, Virginia, and Illinois. Importantly, she brings experience with new models for private-public partnerships – like a new downtown Phoenix park paid for by the developer of an adjoining mixed-use project.

Sara Hensley Turns Over a New Leaf

Hensley's first professional position was with Austin's PARD, from 1985 to 1989. "Through­out my career, I always hoped to come back to Austin," she explained. As the mother of 4-year-old twin boys, Hensley is excited that they can finally live in the same town as their Austin godparents and closer to their Texas grandparents and cousins. Her family lives in a Southwest Austin subdivision, but she tows her sons to parks all over town.

"I have always been an outdoor person – I never wanted to go inside," Hensley remembers of her own childhood, in the small town of Charleston, Ark. Her mother was a nurse and her father the town's doctor. (He was also a business partner to Dale Bumpers, the Arkan­sas governor and senator.) She remembers having to drive to Fort Smith to swim at a public pool and take swim lessons. "When I went to college, I naturally leaned toward intramural sports," she said, ultimately earning a master's in education with an emphasis in parks and recreation. She also served in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. In conversation, Hens­ley shoots out information rapid-fire; at public meetings, she is readily approachable, unafraid to ask for help or crack a joke. "When you walk a park with her, she's constantly looking for ways to do things better," noticed Shade, "from tiny details – relocating the Mutt Mitts, fixing a hole in a play surface – to major policy changes."

Hensley first applied for the director job in 2004, but City Manager Toby Futrell internally promoted Warren Struss, who retired in Decem­ber 2007 after 28 years. Austin Parks Foundation Executive Director Charlie McCabe notes that while previous directors had their strengths, they did not actively seek out public-private partnerships, community involvement, or wholly new approaches and funding strategies, as Hensley is now doing.

Ott remembers that when he offered the position to Hensley, she warned him, in essence: Don't hire me unless you want a change agent. "That's exactly right," she says. "I have to say that's definitely me – a change agent. If you were to call anyone that worked with me in the past, they'd tell you that I like to stir the pot. If changes need to be made, I'm not afraid to make them. Of course it's also hard sometimes, especially internally."

Indeed, some early complaints about Hensley have come from longtime Parks staff, unsettled by the change. But the new director is quick to praise her staffers even as she leads them in new directions. "Anything she asks of her people, she's willing to do herself, and she works tirelessly," observed Shade.

Building Public Trust

Beyond PARD offices, Hensley had her first public trial by fire in April, when controversy erupted over the proposed removal of 30 aged and ailing trees around or near Barton Springs Pool. Rather than duck the debate, she leaned into it as an opportunity to show Austinites her leadership style. (See "Chain-Saw Frenzy," May 8.) Community members and activists initially reacted with anger, distrust, and suspicion toward PARD; Parks Board Chair Linda Guerrero said it "stems from a long trail of broken promises to the community." While Guerrero reprimanded citizens for rudeness at meetings, she also acknowledged, "It's a backlash from years of people feeling like PARD was not being honest."

Hensley invited into the tent even the most irate environmentalists – with an openness unusual for any city department director. Then she recruited them to help her plant new trees and raise PARD's standard of arboreal care. "I truly believe in public involvement and engagement," she asserted. "People need to see that I'm the kind of person that, when I say I'm going to do something – or that I'm not going to do something – I keep my word." By late June, the list of trees for immediate removal was reduced to four trees (although in recent weeks, one of the trees spared by the review snapped and fell).

Robin Cravey, president of Friends of Barton Springs Pool, said that after an awkward start, "she responded with great energy and determination to please as many people as possible. She met with a wide range of folks and listened to everyone regardless of their position. She came through the crisis with good reviews on all sides." The group publicly congratulated Hensley for hiring a local arborist to perform an independent assessment of the trees recommended for removal. Together with the Austin Parks Foundation, Save Barton Creek Association, TreeFolks, and Hill Country Conservancy, the nonprofit has just launched its Tree Stewards Program.

"She's willing to back up, put on the brakes, say, 'Hey, we went in the wrong direction there,'" said Guerrero, "and rethink it and come up with an amazing fix – the Barton Springs trees was a great example of that."

Sara Hensley Turns Over a New Leaf
Courtesy of Victor Ovalle, Austin Parks & Recreation

"I think little by little we'll build trust back," said Hensley. "I'm out a lot of nights and on weekends, and I'm seeing it. I'm meeting with neighborhoods, different groups, associations." She is restructuring the department to improve communication and responsiveness and make staff more outwardly focused. She's also creating a volunteer coordinator position to better harness all the offers of help. Frankly, she will need broad public support – and dollars – to elevate the city's park system. "We're going to get back in the good graces of our community.

"I'm going out to neighborhoods saying, 'Make us do our job!'" she exclaimed. "Each neighborhood has their own ideas of what they want. They can raise money to match us if we can't afford it." (She's also asking West Aus­tin neighborhoods to help raise funds for matching facilities on the Eastside.) She scoffs at fears of inviting neighborhoods to help plan and improve their own parks. "If we can't be com­munity-focused, what business are we in here?"

Parks Board Engagement

Hensley has elevated the role of the council-appointed Parks and Recreation Board, using it as a departmental sounding board. "The level of trust has tremendously increased, because we're working hand in hand," said Guerrero. "It's been so helpful to have someone be so inclusive. She will drop everything and meet with Parks Board members to ensure we are all headed in the same direction and on the same page." She added: "She really listens, and she really values your contributions. Her abilities to build awareness, and her responsiveness, are just phenomenal! ... She will include you at every single level, with responsive information on personnel, contracts, the budget." Previously, Parks Board members had tried but often failed to get such information. "Before, I didn't know if I was getting the entire story," said Guerrero. "Now I feel certain that I do. We're being included and taken seriously. There's a huge change!" She's hearing much the same from park advocates, trail enthusiasts, and concerned citizens: "Where they'd previously gotten nowhere, after trying for years, she's getting back to them within a few days or weeks."

Guerrero finds it frankly refreshing to be working with a female director. "She doesn't hold her cards close," Guerrero says. "She lays them all on the table." The old boys' club, Guerrero said, avoided airing any weaknesses, problems, or budget shortfalls with the board. By contrast, Hensley has sounded an alarm that PARD needs to clean up its credentialing, contracts, finances, and handling of funds. Guerrero said that before, "we did ask to see budgets, but what we got back was bare-bones – only broken out as very broad items. We never heard about any problems. Items were never fully explained. We never saw the details, and when we did push for them, I'm not sure we got accurate information."

Citizen Satisfaction

Despite the persistent criticisms, PARD has kept Austinites pretty happy. According to the city's 2009 community survey, citizens report greater satisfaction than residents of other large U.S. cities (see chart, above). Randi Shade said that in reviewing the survey report, she was struck by the fact that 87% of citizens had visited an Austin city park. The only other city services more universally in demand are city water (95%), electric service (92%), and garbage collection (91%). By contrast, 72% had used libraries. To Shade, the fact that Austinites use parks so regularly argues for funding them well. Only 4% of citizens polled said it is "not important" to continue parks facility and maintenance funding at the current level. (The 2009 report, used to guide budget priorities, was released June 24; it and prior annual surveys are online at

The survey doesn't distinguish between satisfaction in wealthier and poorer parts of town. But Hensley said she's been disturbed by the inequities she has seen – in facilities, staffing, and standards. Citing the physical decrepitude of Rosewood Recreation Center on the Eastside as an example, she said: "This is wrong. It's just wrong. And what kind of message does it send?" So she's pushing for new equity in standards, citywide: "We're never going to be the city that people want us to be if we don't get past this."

Another first: Hensley is actively reaching across traditional departmental silos. She's working with the directors of the Transportation Division and Public Works Department on a walk-bike-trail connectivity plan and with the Neighborhood Housing director on integrating parks into affordable housing. She's already moved to make Parks a cutting-edge department for environmentally sustainable practices that advance the Austin Climate Protection Program. "I love that she's looking at parks themselves as being sustainable," said Shade. "Things like solar panels on youth sports fields, rainwater collection, making each park self-sustaining, replacing the fill-and-draw pools with splash pads – that all aligns with our budget and our values." Hensley asked Austin Energy to use PARD as a city pilot program so she can buy only electric, eco-conscious mowers, blowers, and vehicles. She's planning to reduce her vehicle fleet – and put PARD staff on bicycles and scooters. Those plans earned praise from environmentalists and the Austin Neighborhoods Council.

Unfunded Mandates

Hensley most wants to fast-track changes that will make PARD more directly responsive to community needs. Toward that end, she is pursuing a new approach to strategic planning called the Method of Eight, to be led by a Colorado consultant as a national pilot project; the Austin Parks Foundation is privately raising the funds required (see "Parks and Rec Plus Eight," June 26). Meanwhile, a draft of a revised long-range plan for PARD (initiated before Hensley's arrival) is the best compendium of community priorities. But the draft plan has a glaring flaw: Current budgetary realities did not inform the community wish list. (Read the executive summary at

PARD's funding levels are wildly inadequate to achieve the priorities identified in the long-range plan for the coming decade – and there are dozens, unranked. The plan cites a pressing need to repair, restore, or replace aging park facilities; Austinites also want more infill parks in established neighborhoods. (In response, the department is now prioritizing "pocket" parks for its new land acquisitions.) Improvements need to be funded along the Lady Bird Lake corridor, including Zilker Park and Barton Springs Pool. Austin has too many "underdeveloped" parks – land acquired but never improved for recreation, never mind money for staffing, operations, and maintenance. Pressing priorities identified for master-planning alone include five metropolitan parks, five neighborhood parks, and the site of the decommissioned Holly Power Plant. (Once planned, of course, they'll need funding to get built and then additional funding for maintenance.) The city needs to buy conservation land along the Colorado River and add regional parks in the suburban fringe. Yet of 16 areas recommended for parkland and greenway acquisition, none are shown as funded.

A frayed hoop net is one of many repair jobs for cash-strapped PARD.
A frayed hoop net is one of many repair jobs for cash-strapped PARD. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Trails for walking, hiking, and biking around town rank among Austin's most popular recreational amenities; for that reason, the Austin Parks Foundation and others advocate creating a connected hike-and-bike trail network that links all of the area's creeks and greenbelts. (Sinclair Black drew up just such a plan in 1976.) Now seen as one solution for regional mobility, trail funding could be part of a 2010 transportation bond referendum. On the bright side, the city does have more than 14 miles of major trail projects funded for design and construction. More than $18 million is in hand, from grants and the city's Capital Improvements Program. Yet only two of the funded projects rank among the 11 priority projects desired to create a trail network; the other nine are unfunded.

Under urban redevelopment, the report states, "In response to the densification adjacent to the downtown area, the need for additional parkland and facilities is essential." Yet PARD has no funding stream for such a project. This has been a perennial problem; the Austin Parks Foundation and Downtown Austin Alliance have labored to help but can't do it all. Hensley is hoping the private sector will step up and is looking for federal, state, or foundation funds as well. A new parks and open space plan now coming forward, as part of the Downtown Austin Plan, will propose new funding mechanisms. ROMA Austin principal Jim Adams said stakeholders seem to agree that Downtown parkland needs urban amenities so that it can better serve a dense population of Downtown dwellers, workers, and visitors (see "Developing Stories: Great Public Spaces Summit," July 10). ROMA's plan will address the parks along Lady Bird Lake, the three remaining historic squares, Palm Park, Waterloo Park, and the Downtown Waller Creek and Shoal Creek greenbelts. For financing, Adams said, "We're looking at all options and combinations thereof – from general obligation bonds to tax increment financing, business improvement districts, public-private partnerships, private sponsorships, nonprofit park foundations, etc."

Citywide, to do everything listed in the long-range plan would take "millions and millions and millions" of dollars, said Hensley – money that PARD simply doesn't have. What the new director does have are ideas for drumming up lots more cash – some entrepreneurial, some soon-to-be-controversial.

Rich Uncle, Poor Relation

The recession and the city's resulting budget crunch have made it an opportune time for Hensley to conduct a fiscal house-cleaning. She has called for a review of all contracts, after discovering that PARD has been "giving away the farm" for decades. For example, PARD charged the Austin Rowing Club no rent for 20 years on PARD's boathouse. Now an expensive new boathouse has been designed, as part of the Waller Creek Tunnel Project – and PARD, for the first time, has advocated adding concessions and has opened up the boathouse rental contract for competitive bids. "We as a department are to blame for not doing due diligence," Hensley says. The need to slash PARD's budget still further also prompted Hensley to reexamine the Trail of Lights; turns out the department has been losing about $800,000 on it annually. To stem the losses, PARD has proposed charging $5 for entry; it's also invited other organizations to submit proposals to run the event.

In turning over the fiscal rocks, Hensley appears to enjoy support from council and city management. Council Member Sheryl Cole, who chairs council's finance and audit subcommittee and, like Shade, is a Parks advocate, said, "It's past time for us to look at our parks in different ways." She added, "I think we need one set of visions for our urban parks, another for neighborhood parks, and another for pocket parks." Cole has been looking at alternative parks-finance models; last year she organized a group trip to Discovery Green in Houston, a new downtown park that is fiscally self-sustaining through concessions, innovative financing, donations, and public-private partnerships. She favors opening up Zilker Park, Butler Park, the Waller Creek parks, and other areas to more private concessions – offering more fun things to do in the park.

To win the support of the Austin community, PARD certainly will need to carefully define a set of ground rules for public-private partnerships. Nationally, some joint efforts have worked out well; others have been criticized for unseemly and unreliable corporate branding of public assets. Some vocal open space advocates abhor allowing a single sno-cone stand on city park land; other Austinites would welcome private support if it allows better parks and amenities.

Hensley has even raised the delicate issue of PARD fee waivers for public events, made by council members to help out community groups. Preliminary budget reviews by PARD suggest that the department is losing close to a million dollars a year, from usage fees that are waived, reduced, or never assessed. (Moreover, all PARD usage fees actually go not to maintain the site used, or even to the department, but straight into the city's General Fund – another problem that needs fixing.) Hensley cites as a model cities that set an overall annual budget for waivers; at a bare minimum, she thinks PARD needs to be reimbursed for its hard costs to host events in parks, such as staff overtime. Both Cole and Shade expressed a willingness to delve into the matter. While fee waivers do help nonprofits, "I would support a revenue impact analysis," said Cole.

For decades, council has been stripping PARD of revenue with little real accountability. To cite but one example, in 2007 council passed a resolution creating a free swim day at Barton Springs Pool; this year it was on July 11. It's a generous public gesture, but Cole has no memory of council asking about the giveaway's revenue impact. In fact, the freebie costs the Aquatics Division about $17,000 in lost income – at a time when it's closing pools and cutting hours in a budget crisis.

In essence, the city and PARD itself have been acting like a rich uncle, handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in park use fee waivers to every nonprofit and organization that hosts a fundraiser or an event in a park and asking for nothing back other than good will. Then, like a poor relation, it begs the Austin Parks Foundation, the Trail Foundation, and others to fund the department's own basic needs. The time may have come for PARD to start acting more like an "enterprise department" (e.g., Austin Energy and the Austin Water Utility) – one that enterprisingly charges customers for the full cost of using its services, facilities, and amenities, like golf courses.

"We hired Sara [Hensley] to create high-caliber parks," Cole observed. "We didn't do that naively, thinking there would not have to be fiscal changes to accomplish that goal. I think I would support any financial proposal she brought forward to improve the department's fiscal sustainability."

Being the Best

Hensley wants to fight smarter for General Fund allotments as well. "I don't expect any City Council or city manager or assistant city manager to support us for more staff if we can't explain what the true needs are. And we have not done that," she says frankly. She aims to amass the hard data and statistical analysis necessary to make a strong case for funding PARD to a higher standard. "The Police and Fire departments do it so well," she says. "And we don't have any of that!" She notes that afterschool programs for at-risk youth, for example, play a role in crime prevention, yet PARD has no hard numbers to cite. (Anyone remember Beverly Griffith's mid-Nineties crusade to have PARD reidentified as a public-safety program – thus immunizing it from budget cuts?) Says Hensley, "We may have said, 'We need more people,' but the truth is, why?"

Shade pointed out that Hensley has a difficult role; it's hard to win fans as a change agent unless a department is in true crisis. Ott countered: "All the department heads I've hired have essentially been brought in as change agents. It's part of our mission to become the best managed city in the country. You have to be prepared for dramatic positive change, to make us the best – the standard bearer for all other parks departments across the country." As for advancing bold budget-balancing moves, Ott said of Hensley: "She and the other department heads enjoy the prerogative of CEOs, to figure it out. I'm open to any suggestions and new ideas." Proposed strategies will receive a thorough review by the city manager and the executive team. "Then we'll resource it and move on it as rapidly as we can."

Perhaps one day, Hensley will make unpopular moves, and her honeymoon will end. But for now, Austin has embraced her, and that bodes well for any ideas she champions. "Anything and everything I can do to support her, I will," said Shade. Echoed Cole, "She's the right person with the right vision for the right time."

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