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Editorial: An endowment fund for Olmsted parks is long overdue

It’s so good and obvious an idea, it should have been pursued years ago: The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy plans this summer to launch an endowment campaign to help fund its stewardship of the city’s historic park system. It’s a natural for one of Buffalo’s premier cultural assets. Indeed, it should be seen as essential.

Lacking iconic buildings or specific programming, the city’s ring of Olmsted parks may not appear, at first blush, to count among the area’s cultural treasures. But they do.

Along with jewels such as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Buffalo Zoo, Shea’s Performing Arts Center, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Frank Lloyd Wright houses and other sites, the Olmsted parks are inextricably infused in the city’s identity. Without them, Buffalo would be a different, lesser city.

But as park lovers around the country have learned, it is unwise to count on local governments to support large urban parks in a manner that best protects and uses them. They are easy for administrations and councils to underfund when revenues fall short and other critical needs must also be met. That’s among the reason that the Central Park Conservancy was founded in 1980.

That park – which, like the Buffalo system, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux – is among the most famous and beautiful in the world. It suffered periods of decline over its history, but by the 1970s, when New York City was undergoing a severe financial crisis, the park was bedraggled and sometimes unsafe, There was little prospect that it would improve under strained and distracted city management. It needed an advocate and, with the formation of the Conservancy, it got one. The Central Park Conservancy pays 75 percent of the park’s $67 million budget, funded in part by an endowment approaching $200 million.

Here, the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy was founded as the Buffalo Friends of Olmsted Parks in 1978, two years earlier than the Central Park Conservancy. Its mission, according to its website, was nothing less than “to help save the parks.” That costs money. As of its 2016 report, the Conservancy’s net assets were $746,757. None of it was in the form of an endowment.

The city’s Olmsted Parks – especially Delaware Park, the system’s jewel – are costly to maintain and require the care and oversight of specialists who understand the many special considerations that go into maintaining this historic park system. An endowment should be a required part of that management strategy.

The Conservancy plans to launch its endowment drive in August, as part of the year’s sesquicentennial celebration of the Buffalo Olmsted parks, the nation’s first urban park system. The initial goal is to raise $18 million, which seems sufficiently challenging without being unachievable.

Western New York is surely home to many donors would be eager to help secure the long-term health of the park system that helps to define Buffalo. Indeed, as has been made plain during the debate over bringing a Jack Nicklaus design to the Delaware Park golf course, there are deep pockets around the country with a keen interest in preserving the Olmsted legacy.

It’s an encouraging, if belated, idea. With the right local leadership to organize the fundraising, there is every reason to think that this goal will be met before very long. Then, organizers can begin, again. A generous, growing endowment should be a given for this stunning collection of parks.

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