A walk in the park

Parks and recreation is an enormous business. Every year, tens of millions of dollars change hands between taxpayers and governments, leagues and athletes, coaches and students, festival organizers and regulators. At every level, from the construction and maintenance of facilities to sign-ups for tournaments, classes and camps, people are paid — many of them handsomely — so others may use public parks.

But at the Clark County Department of Parks and Recreation, don’t use the “P” word to describe any financial transaction. As 25-year-old fitness freak and entrepreneur Julie Johnston has learned this year, it doesn’t matter how successful you are in luring otherwise sedate citizens outside and into the kinds of activities that parks were created to accommodate — “profit” is grounds for removal and banishment from public fields.

Ms. Johnston runs Boot Camp Las Vegas, which has offered outdoor conditioning classes to small groups of residents for more than two years. Her aerobic and muscle-toning workouts are geared toward people who dislike the monotonous nature of gym environments and would rather exercise in the sunshine, temperature permitting. The classes take place in open spaces, away from other park users — if any are present at all.

In January, on a quiet weekday morning, a Clark County park police officer forced one of Ms. Johnston’s classes out of Desert Breeze Park. Ms. Johnston says she was not given a reason for the action. Playing the part of the squeaky wheel, she rolled up the chain of command until, after meetings with officials including county parks Director Leonard Cash, she was told there was no getting around a county code that forbids any for-profit business from operating inside county parks without the authorization of the County Commission.

Interpreting code that makes it unlawful “to sell or offer for sale any merchandise, article or thing whatsoever” to mean a fitness trainer can’t run willing adults through calisthenics and push-ups is a stretch — Ms. Johnston isn’t selling anything in the parks. She’s being paid, yes, but she’s not hawking her services to picnic-goers.

Here’s where things get really silly. County officials told Ms. Johnston that she could continue her activities if she abandoned her capitalistic principles and converted to a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

Her activities aren’t the problem, according to the county. It’s the profit that provides her with a living.

So if she reorganizes her company, pays herself the same salary and uses parks in the exact manner she does today, her charges can continue huffing and sweating in county parks. What a foolish foray through red tape that would be.

The only complaint Clark County has received regarding Ms. Johnston’s business came from a smaller park maintained by a homeowners association, a group well within its rights to require prior approval for group use of its quasi-private property. However, no one has complained about her company’s activities at larger, regional parks.

In fact, county officials think so much of Ms. Johnston’s work that they asked her to consider running her program through the Department of Parks and Recreation. She refused.

County officials trot out familiar scare tactics and excuses for preventing for-profit businesses from working on public property, warning that quiet parks will be overtaken by hot-air balloonists, sporting goods salesmen and anyone else who might benefit from being outside. These examples don’t hold water because parks were never intended for such obviously inappropriate exercises — they aren’t remotely comparable to Ms. Johnston’s enterprise.

As long as citizens are engaged in activities befitting a park and don’t hinder anyone else’s access to fields and facilities, no one should be concerned with whether or how money might be exchanged. The county’s hand-wringing over payments would seem to prevent a youth track coach from running her kids across open fields because she earns a stipend — personal “profit” — for her time. Sports league referees and umpires are compensated for working at park facilities. Is that “profit,” however small, unacceptable? County parks employees are certainly paid well for their efforts. They “profit” from parks.

Ms. Johnston is a taxpayer, as are all of her campers. The parks belong to them, too.

Kudos to Ms. Johnston for fighting this battle on principle. She’s taking her case to the Clark County Commission. The board should grant her an exception — and thank her — for improving the health and well-being of so many residents.

These arguments finally appear to be registering with county officials, who announced Friday afternoon that they would review their policies and consider changing code to allow groups such as Ms. Johnston’s into parks. Considering the cities of Las Vegas and Henderson have no problem with the operations of Boot Camp Las Vegas in their parks, commissioners might want to review those municipal policies — and inject some common sense into their own.

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