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Mill River Park Collaborative in Stamford, CT

By Charlie McCabe

Another organization that I've been working with this year is the Mill River Park Collaborative in Stamford, CT. Stamford is a city of about 125,000 in a city of 33,000 acres, similar to Boston. Stamford is located along the coast, sandwiched between some well-known wealthier cities and is an easy, 45-minute commuter rail train ride from NYC. For me, it was a 3-hour Amtrak ride from Boston to Stamford, and a short walk to the park from the train station.

The park began nearly 20 years ago as an effort to remove a dam, which resulted in the flooding of a portion of the downtown business district. Once the river was restored, it became the center of what is now a 30-acre and growing park. This river restoration is one of the most successful that I've seen, a testament not only to the design, but also to the continuing efforts of the Collaborative's Land Care Team, who have restored and maintained native plantings along the banks. The collaborative is a nonprofit that builds, operates, and maintains the park. Funds for development of new features and amenities come from a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district the city administers as well as privately raised funds. Programming and operations come from fundraising, with a portion from the city's annual budget process.

The park continues to grow, becoming a central park with linear park extensions. A one-mile greenway trail to the north (built by the Collaborative) connects two schools and a larger city park, which has formal facilities for active recreation, including ballfields, sport courts and a skate park. To the south (toward Long Island Sound), the city has been directing growth, mandating that commercial and residential development built along the river must include public space and a continuous trail. The ultimate goal is to extend the park north to the Merritt Parkway (near the northern border of the city) and south to Long Island Sound. Next on their list is rebuilding the playground (the original amenity in the park) and redeveloping a portion of the park farther south through a contract that the city is managing on behalf of the Collaborative.

The Collaborative recently opened an education and visitor center in a green building where we met with staff and board as we helped them sort through work that will result in a new strategic plan. Via surveys, we found that the staff was very aligned in terms of benefits of the park and proposed goals of the park. We facilitated some discussions that will lead to the formulation of a new strategic plan, while also researching best practices for similar park partnerships in other cities. While Stamford has only 125,000 residents, it's surrounded by similar-sized cities and towns. Mill River Park definitely has features and amenities that rival public-nonprofit park partnerships in much larger cities. It's a great example of public-nonprofit partnership working collaboratively to create a public space for all to use.

The Collaborative will be continuing to develop its strategic plan in the coming months, after it gets through its busy summer event season.

© Copyright 2023, Charlie McCabe Consulting LLC

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