With the groundbreaking for a transformed Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park one year away, the question of who will operate and maintain the park has become clear.
A newly-established not-for-profit called the Ralph Wilson Park Conservancy will be in charge.
The conservancy's 11-member board, to be chosen over the next 12 to 18 months, will include representatives from the City of Buffalo, the LaSalle Focus Group and civic leaders, as well as philanthropic and corporate members. A one-hour virtual information session explaining the conservancy has been scheduled for 6 p.m. today.
"The Imagine LaSalle team has thoroughly evaluated different park governance structures and has recommended the conservancy model," said David Egner, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation's president and CEO. "Along with the established endowment, we are beginning to assemble the pieces necessary to support and sustain Ralph Wilson Park for decades to come.”
The Imagine LaSalle team is composed of officials from the Wilson Foundation, City of Buffalo, University at Buffalo Regional Institute, Buffalo Urban Development Corp. and the Imagine LaSalle Focus Group.
“A conservancy management structure will continue the strong public engagement that has driven the Imagine LaSalle initiative since its inception," Mayor Byron Brown said in a statement.
The foundation also announced that the Ralph Wilson Park Endowment Fund will be overseen by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. Investment returns from the fund are expected to generate between $400,000 and $500,000 a year to support the conservancy, said J.J. Tighe, who directs the foundation's parks and trails initiatives.
The funds will be used to pay for enhanced maintenance of the park, such as turf maintenance, landscaping, furnishings, events and programing, concessions, marketing and branding.
On what would have been Ralph Wilson’s 100th birthday, his foundation will announce what will be the largest philanthropic gift ever made in Western New
Proceeds from the endowment will go to the Ralph Wilson Park Conservancy on an annual basis starting in 2023. Funds will be used prior to that on maintenance facilities and the purchase of maintenance equipment for the park. After the opening, the funds will be used for park maintenance only.
The city will continue to mow the grass, pick up trash and recycling and provide security at the city-owned park.
The Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation announced on what would have been Wilson's 100th birthday in October 2018 that it was giving $50 million to create a state-of-the-art park in what has been known as LaSalle Park. That included a $10 million endowment. Another $50 million was announced to complete a regional trail system in Western New York.
The park is being designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which expects to have construction drawings completed this spring. It is anticipated that the park will be completed in 2024.
Marnetta Malcolm, a member of the Imagine La Salle focus group, said community members learned about park management on field trips to parks in Brooklyn, Chicago and Cincinnati, and they shared their views with other partners.
Malcolm said the focus group has been involved consistently from the start.
With more than $1 billion to spend, the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation is less interested in funding show horses than work
"There hasn't been a piece of this that we haven't been involved in," Malcolm said. "It's kept us really engaged, and it's been like this from the very beginning."
The pandemic has demonstrated the value of open space and nature, said Jim Boyle, the foundation's vice president for programs and communications.
"What the pandemic has seemed to lay bare in the Western New York region and, really, across the country, is the importance of public space," Boyle said.
"It feels like the vaccine rollout is priority No. 1, but public space is seen as really, really important to all the partners we're talking with, so that's heartening to us," he added.
To register for the virtual information session, go to imaginelasalle.org.
Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He's also a former arts editor at The News.