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A new gift catalog -- for giving nice things to your town

Move over, Neiman-Marcus. There's some competition coming to the gift catalog business.

This time, however, there's a difference. Everything you buy is to be shared with your town.

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The new catalogs - there are less than a half-dozen of them - offer the usual tempting photos and charge-card billing privileges. From them you can pick a new bench, a water fountain, or even a swimming pool for your community. Its added bonus: the gifts are tax deductible.

The catalogs are one answer to the urban budget squeeze and the Reagan administration's bid to increase public-private partnerships. The message to potential gift-shoppers: the quality of city life does not thrive on property taxes alone.

A handsome 16-page green gift handbook, just published by the Chicago North Shore suburb of Lake Forest, Ill., offers the broadest array of buys. The community welcomes donor dollars to purchase anything from trash containers to a new fire engine or an indoor swimming pool.

The cheapest gift on the list, at $75, sponsors a youth athletic team and allows the giver to put the name of a business or civic group on the team T-shirt. If a resident has $30,000 to spare, he can help the town solve a drainage problem and, in so doing, add a water hazard on the 18th hole of the city's golf course.

Lake Forest City Manager John Fishbach admits that some of the gifts in the handbook are of the ''dream'' variety. The community, for instance, will probably never build an indoor swimming pool unless some donor sees fit to hand over the needed $2.5 million.

But one reason the catalog came to be was the tradition of civic giving that has prevailed in this well-to-do North Shore suburb. Lake Forest owes everything - from its library and golf course to the $100,000 annual budget of its community center and the new $8,000 oak table used in City Council meetings - to the generosity of local businesses, civic groups, and individuals.

''We knew that people here were generous, and our feeling was that we should lay everything on the table and let them know there were needs here as well,'' explains Mr. Fishbach.

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The concept of a city gift catalog dates back to the mid-1970s. But the few cities that have picked up on the idea since then have largely focused donor attention on park department additions like picnic tables and tennis courts. The Mount Holly, N.J., Parks and Recreation Department, one of the first to put out a catalog, calls on its residents to remember their happy childhood days.

''It came about originally as a public-relations tool more than anything else ,'' recalls department director Don Plucinski. ''We wanted to make people aware of what facilities are available and encourage them to take good care of them.''

Mr. Plucinski says he has been surprised to see that much of the response to date has been from individuals, giving small ($5-$10) gifts, rather than from businesses.

For the last two years the Detroit Recreation Department has sponsored a Partners Program, including a gift catalog, in an effort to get more community support behind park purchases and projects. Department director Daniel Krichbaum reports that some Detroiters have contributed sports equipment or have beautified park areas and kept them litter free, while others have provided dollars for park benches and other routine purchases. He notes that this year, for the first time, local corporations pitched in to supply the $30,000 usually obtained from federal and state sources to support scholarships for inner-city youngsters at a city-run camp about 30 miles from Detroit.

Most gifts to the Champaign, Ill., Park District, which has put out a pocket-size gift catalog for the last three years, go for tree planting. Park District director Bob Toalson says within certain limits donors are allowed to select the kind of tree - ''we encourage hard oak and maple'' - and the location. And at Christmastime the Park District asks local businesses to contribute to the city for tree planting the dollars they would spend on Christmas cards. In exchange for the gift, which usually amounts to $1,000 or more, the district runs a large ''thank you'' ad, naming all contributors, in the local newspaper.

Some city catalog producers admit they are concerned that giving may taper off as competition for available dollars steps up.

''Even large businesses aren't giving as much as they did in the past,'' notes Mount Holly's Don Plucinski.

One vital ingredient for cataloging, according to National League of Cities spokesman Randy Arndt: ''There has to be a little community tradition of philanthropy before you can expect an idea like this to really get off the ground.''

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