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New Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy Head Focused On Equitable Projects, Boosting Public Funding

Sarah Kovash
90.5 WESA
Jayne Miller, who formerly headed the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, will take over the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy this week.

Jayne Miller, the Former head of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, is joining the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy this week.

Miller will become only the second President and CEO in the history of the Pittsburgh nonprofit. She will succeed conservancy founder Meg Cheever, who will retire in March. Miller headed The Minneapolis Park System for seven years. For five of those years, it was ranked the No. 1 park system in the nation.

Miller spoke with 90.5 WESA’s Maria Scapellato about some of her plans including a referendum she hopes to get on the ballot to boost public funding for Pittsburgh’s parks.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

MARIA SCAPELLATO: You were the superintendent of the Minneapolis Parks and here you're going to head the conservancy, a nonprofit. Will your approach to this job be any different? It's a slightly different role that you're going to play here.

JAYNE MILLER: My approach will be pretty much the same, but it will be different in terms of areas that we focus on. Clearly one of the major issues right now is trying to get a referendum on the ballot. Also working with the city to consolidate 20 agreements into a single agreement and a single unified governance structure where the conservancy will take over managing operating the entire park system. So in many ways it's similar, but I'm just starting from a different place.

SCAPELLATO: You mentioned getting a referendum on the ballot that would use taxpayer money for the conservancy. That's one of your top priorities. That would happen this fall, is that correct? Can you expand on that?

MILLER: We're going to the legislature to get a bill passed to allow us to put a referendum on the ballot. Then there's a whole education and communication process that we need to go through so people understand the benefits of that referendum.

SCAPELLATO: Where would the money come from ultimately?

MILLER: It will come from the taxpayers in the city of Pittsburgh.

SCAPELLATO: What do you see as the next big project on the horizon for the Parks Conservancy?

MILLER: The next big project is in the works. It’s at Allegheny Commons, renovating the fountain. So the conservancy is raising $2.5 million. You know, one of the major efforts of the conservancy is to ensure that our investments are equitable, addressing race and economic equity in the city of Pittsburgh. Doing this project at Allegheny Commons is one of those efforts of addressing some of the challenging areas of the city such as North Pittsburgh.

SCAPELLATO: When we think of parks a lot of folks think of Schenley, Highland, Frick, the big ones, but there are a lot of other parks especially in underserved neighborhoods. Are you going to focus on those? 

MILLER: Absolutely. It's one of the things that I'm really proud of that we did in Minneapolis. Our entire Capital Improvements Plan in Minneapolis is based on a criteria-based matrix system addressing racial and economic equity. Our priorities are in those areas of the city where there's low economic [status] or people of color, which are often underserved. So it will be something I'm going to be really focusing on in the conservancy is very focused on is addressing racial and economic equity as well. I'll be working with low income areas of the city, the city council, the board, to make sure that we're making equitable investments and our projects.

SCAPELLATO: You know, the mayor and council are elected officials, obviously there are accountable to voters. How can you assure that the public has a voice in the parks system? If the conservancy ultimately ends up managing the parks in some way shape or form how will you be accountable to the voters and the taxpayers?

MILLER:  Absolutely. Part of that will be the agreements that we have with the city but also for me and our staff to be very engaged and responsive to the residents of Pittsburgh is really critical so that both the programs we provide and the improvements we make in parks are really in response to what the community tells us they want. 

SCAPELLATO: A lot of these initiatives will most likely have to go through council and the mayor as well, correct?

MILLER: Absolutely. I would assume there's going to be an approval process that we have to go through whether it's through the planning commission or City Council. Public process is really important, community engagement. So, all of those things are going to be critical elements of ensuring that while the conservancy is a nonprofit we are being entrusted to manage public space in a very positive way, in a way that engages the community.