Two years after its incorporation, a fledgling nonprofit and its plans for supporting Portland’s public parks are beginning to take shape.

The Portland Parks Conservancy now has a 13-member board of directors, a full-time executive director and five specific projects to undertake in the coming years.

Those projects include establishing a Portland Youth Corps, where teenagers could earn money working in the city’s parks. The group also is moderating a community discussion about the future of Fort Gorges, a historic island fort in Portland Harbor, and plans to expand recreational options for people with disabilities.

The conservancy secured its nonprofit status last month, allowing it to begin raising private money for public projects in addition to seeking grants. It will hold its first private fundraiser on Sept. 12.

“This is our first introduction to donors and others who might be interested in our work,” said Nan Cumming, a well-known parks and trails advocate who is the group’s executive director.

The Portland Parks Conservancy was launched in 2017 with the help of Lucas St. Clair, who provided three years of start-up funding through his foundation, Elliotsville Plantation Inc., the nonprofit that amassed land in northern Maine that would eventually become Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

St. Clair is the son of conservationist and philanthropist Roxanne Quimby, who donated 87,500 acres of land for Katahdin Woods and Waters. The upcoming fundraiser will take place at the Portland home of Hannah Quimby, Lucas’ sister.

Ethan Hipple, deputy director of the city’s parks, recreation and facilities, said he is excited about the progress the group is making and the potential for them to tap into private and corporate donors to support the city’s 63 parks, encompassing 721 acres.

Hipple said the city’s park system now has $2 million to $3 million in capital maintenance needs over the next decade, from replacing athletic fields to fixing playgrounds. And the conservancy is taking its cues from that.

“It takes money and resources to maintain these things and the city has a lot of competing needs,” Hipple said. “We need the help.”

Cumming, who started in January, said she works closely with city staff. Her office is located in the city’s Parks and Recreation building on Canco Road. She said the conservancy is partnering with existing park advocacy groups and neighborhood organizations, but also focusing on areas and parks that lack organized support.

Or, as Hipple put it: “It’s basically a friends group for all of Portland’s parks.”

This week, the conservancy is stepping into the spotlight as it moderates a community forum about a controversial proposal to develop Fort Gorges, a 2-acre fort that was completed in 1864 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. The property is accessible only by boat and is a popular destination or waypoint for kayakers.

Cumming said the conservancy had been working with the Friends of Fort Gorges to identify ways to pay for repairs that would stabilize the fort. She said the city had agreed to pay half of the estimated $450,000 costs, and the Friends were trying to raise the rest.

The development proposal, however, has caused her to shift gears.

“(Fort Gorges) is in serious need of stabilization and the development proposal grew out of that,” she said. “What we want to present at the forum is: (Developer) Mike Dugay’s ideas are way far to one end of the spectrum and there’s a whole range of potential ways to activate the fort a little bit and bring people out there.”

But Cumming, the only paid staffer for the conservancy, said she has been hard at work on other, less visible projects, as well. The most ambitious of those is establishing a Portland Youth Corps.

Cumming said the youth corps would be a job training and service program for teenagers, ages 14-16, from underserved communities and low-income or immigrant families. The program would put teenagers to work in the city’s park system, allowing them to earn money, work with mentors and gain valuable job experience, she said.

Hipple said youth corps are common across the United States, but they are usually run at the federal or state level.

Cumming said that $80,000 would cover the costs of two 12-member crews, and additional crews could be added as funding allows.

“That’s our big project and it’s very scalable,” she said.

Cumming said the conservancy is also tackling two projects that would serve people with disabilities in the Riverton neighborhood.

The group is working to raise $20,000 to enhance access and features at the Riverton Elementary School, which has a life skills program for people with disabilities. Those additional features include a poured rubber playground surface, rather than wood chips, to make it more accessible to people in wheelchairs, and a basket-swing that could be used by kids with or without disabilities.

“They’re really expensive and we didn’t have money for that in the city budget,” Hipple said of the features. “We want Riverton to be a shining example of something that is truly an inclusive playground for all kids.”

Cumming said another priority project has been identified behind the school, on land the city has informally dubbed “Riverton Preserve.”

The goal is to create a network of trails, Hipple said, including a loop that would have a sensory trail for people with disabilities. That trail, which could cost $70,000, would have a smooth surface for people in wheelchairs, signs that include braille and a listening feature for people who are visually impaired.

“I’m very excited about the partnership between the city and the Portland Parks Conservancy,” said City Councilor Kimberly Cook, who represents the neighborhood and has spoken to Cumming about possible investments in the Kiwanis pool and splash area. “I’m very pleased to learn that the conservancy is considering the Riverton project for investment.”

In addition to Fort Gorges, the conservancy is also looking to raise $50,000 to $70,000 for a so-called pump track for cyclists, skateboarders and scooter riders. The track could be either a modular unit that could be moved around the city, or several permanent structures could be built.

Cumming said Elliotsville Plantation is providing $75,000 a year in start-up funding. That money covers her salary and about $12,000 in other operating expenses.

Elliotsville Plantation has supported other groups in Portland. In 2017, the group provided financial support to the Friends of Deering Oaks ($1,000), Friends of Lincoln Park ($2,500), Maine Philanthropy Center ($1,000), Portland Education Foundation ($2,000) and Sierra Club Maine Chapter ($1,000), according to the nonprofit’s most recent tax filing.

The conservancy is in the second of three years of start-up funding. After that, the group will be expected to be self-sustaining, she said.

But Cumming hopes for more than that. She’s hoping to raise enough money to provide direct financial support for projects, rather than simply helping groups apply for grants and connect with private funders.

“That’s the long-term goal,” she said.

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