One of the interesting things about the methodology of the so-called “Bloomington School” founded by Vincent and Elinor Ostrom was their reluctance to use broad imprecise terms when describing various institutions such as “markets” or “government.” Vincent’s research on water rights in the Los Angeles area and Lin’s work on common pool resources made them both understandably leery of applying over-arching, black and white terms that missed much of the nuance of actual policy making and problem solving in the real world. People interested in reality frequently live in reality, and reality is messy and difficult to simplify. 

I was thinking about their approach as I listened to a podcast from the Indianapolis Business Journal on the creation of a park in the Indianapolis suburb of Zionsville. The story behind the new park is very much a tale of the private and public spheres overlapping, but it raises questions about the possibility of competing, and perhaps conflicting “public” goals and incentives. It begins with Jim and Nancy Carpenter, owners of the nation’s largest franchised purveyor of wild bird feed, feeders, and other backyard equipment to attract birds for the purposes of bird watching. Jim Carpenter described himself as “an unemployed bird watcher” who very laudably turned his passion into a successful business. 

The story of the new park, Carpenter Nature Preserve, began when the Carpenters purchased a privately owned 200+ acre golf course and then allowed the land to return to its “natural state.” They focused on keeping the cart paths accessible as hiking trails and let the natural plants and animals slowly reinhabit the course. But rather than keep the newly minted park private, they had a different goal in mind. 

The Carpenters’ ultimate plan was to sell the property to the city of Zionsville. Once purchased from the Carpenters at approximately a million dollar discount from its assessed value, the city agreed to convert the land into a park and maintain it. The land has a diverse set of habitats and a wide variety of wildlife within its boundaries. Essentially the Carpenters were giving the city a sale price, asking the city to internalize the maintenance costs and thus permanently take the land out of private hands codifying their preferred use of the property. 

The city purchased the park using some local money but also approximately 3 million dollars worth of federal grants designed for such projects. Thus, both the city and the national government are footing the bill and assuming that most citizens would approve of the expenditure and prefer a park to a golf course. Of course, someone else could have made a higher bid on the course when it was for sale and repurposed it into apartments or some other project, but presumably no one else did. The 6 million dollar assessed value is a bit unclear. 

We are seeing an increasing blurring of the lines between for profit and “non-profit” ventures in the United States and elsewhere. The story is similar to the one told in the recently released film Wild Life in which the former CEO of Patagonia clothing dedicated his life to buying huge tracts of land (cultural reference fully intended!) in Southern Chile and creating a large nature reserve that was eventually “donated” to the Chilean government in exchange for agreements to maintain the park. 

The question to me isn’t whether or not private individuals can or should purchase land for parks and reserves. The answer to that question is, absolutely. The more important question is whether they should then ask government officials to assume the cost and responsibility they don’t wish to have and impose those costs and their personal preferences onto other citizens. This was land that in private hands was producing tax revenue. Now it will be a tax burden. What’s more the land wasn’t donated—it was sold, albeit at a discounted price. But that process again assumes the overall preferences of “the public” are for a park and paying for such a park. Instead it looks very much like the preferences here are of a business owner who prefers bird watching to playing a leisurely 18 holes of golf. 

Bright lines are tough to draw in the real world and increasingly what is “out of bounds” (to borrow a golf term) is tough to determine. I hope the citizens of Zionsville and their elected officials enjoy the new green space, but I also hope they realize there is no such thing as a free park.