Hollywood has the Oscars, college basketball has the NCAA Championship and park authorities nationwide have the National Sporting Goods Association award. The annual award, which recognizes park and recreation departments for their sound management and administration policies, is considered the most coveted prize in park management. This year, the Fairfax County Park Authority won the gold medal for parks serving over 250,000 people for the first time since 1983.
"From a prestige perspective this is the best that you can get for recreation and parks," said Judy Pedersen, a spokesperson for the Fairfax County Park Authority. "They're not giving it to us because we produce nice reports or anything. It's very global. They take a look at the entirety of your program."
"IT'S A VERY thorough process," agreed Larry Weindruch, communications director for the National Sporting Goods Association. "They must show long-range planning. It's not just 'We've got 101,000 acres of parkland.' It goes way beyond that."
"It really lets the cream rise to the top," he added.
The NSGA is an industry organization for sporting goods retailers and wholesalers. While the group's primary focus is on providing information and research to member businesses, it has also hosted an annual convention since 1965 where it presents its park awards.
To participate, local park authorities must first be sponsored by an NSGA member retailer.
"A lot of times, [the sponsor] is from their community," said Donna Hartzel, of NSGA. "We send out in the Fall the gold medal brochure."
After hearing from its members, the NSGA sends the park agencies a nine-page questionnaire asking for information on specific projects. The agencies that make it past that round then have to produce a 14 minute video detailing their accomplishments.
Pedersen said that staff members worked "on and off" on the video for several weeks.
"It does force you to sit down and take stock of things that have worked and things that haven't worked," she said.
"The competition was fierce," she said. "This is the premier award. People compete furiously."
But the Fairfax County Park Authority was not competing against winners from the previous five years, which include the parks departments of Cleveland, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; Long Beach, Calif.; Mesa, Ariz. and Lake County, Ill. According to Weindruch winners are ineligible for five years "so that it gives everybody a chance to be recognized."
If only a few jurisdictions win year after year, "it might discourage competition," he said. "The idea is to encourage participation of a lot of different groups." He said Fairfax County beat about 20 competitors in its category.
Winners get a gold-colored circular plaque — manufactured by an NSGA member that also makes the Oscar statuettes — and bragging rights back home, said Weindruch.
"This is a good way of going back to the taxpayers and saying, 'Look, we're doing a good job for you," he said.
THE FAIRFAX COUNTY Park Authority's sponsor this year was Fitness Resource, Inc., a Fairfax-based retailer and wholesaler of fitness equipment. Since July, 2001, the county has purchased around $49,500 worth of fitness equipment from the company, according to the Fairfax County Department of Purchasing and Supply Management. Customers have also filed two complaints against the company in the last two years for selling defective equipment and for failing to provide prompt services, according to the county's Consumer Protection Division. In both cases, the county ruled in favor of the consumers.
David Nees, the president of CEO of Fitness Resource, Inc. did not return repeated calls to his office for comment for this story.
"What the sponsor gets is pretty minimal," said Pedersen. "There isn't really a big payoff for them."
She added that she got the company's name from Park Authority files.
"We haven't had too much go-between," she said. "The people who sponsor really do it out of the goodness of their heart."
"This is a way of getting our members involved in the process and getting a partnership between park authorities and local businesses," said Weindruch. "Some people might say, 'They'll nominate them and maybe they'll get some business out of them."
But that is not that case, he added. "I'm sure there's a certain amount of altruism involved and there's a certain amount of promotion involved," he said. "For the local retailer it's like civic involvement."