News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 3, 2013

New master plan gives city parks a future direction

Recommendations: mow less, maintain

TERRE HAUTE — Folks in Terre Haute are proud of their city’s park system.

It’s a sprawling collection ranging from tiny green spaces on street corners to neighborhood playgrounds to massive and picturesque fields, recreation areas and golf courses.

However, with 35 different properties, the park system may be too big and too spread out for the parks department’s smaller budget. At least that’s one of the conclusions in the latest five-year “master plan” commissioned by the parks board. Eliminating a few of the least used parks is one of the plan’s recommendations.

State property tax caps have made spending less an urgent priority at the parks department. Since 2008, when the caps were adopted by the state legislature, the park’s budget has been cut 25 percent from $3.4 million annually to $2.6 million.

In light of the smaller parks budget, the new “master plan,” which builds on the previous five-year document, urges the parks department to, first, maintain the equipment and facilities it has.

“The primary goal for the plan is again to take care of what the city already has,” states the new master plan, which was produced by HWC Engineering, which has offices in Terre Haute.

Still, the parks department “must do more than tread water for the next five years.” How much more is the big question.

Mow less

Sara Booth was walking her English mastiff, Diesel, last week through the Maple Avenue Nature Park, the newest addition to the city’s collection. It was their first time through the picturesque setting, which features a shimmering pond half enclosed by tall trees and encircled by a new concrete path. The park is in a low-lying area across from Ouabache Elementary School not far from U.S. 41 to the west and Collett Park to the east.

“It’s beautiful,” Booth said, petting Diesel’s enormous head after their walk. “We just stopped by on a whim.”

The Maple Avenue Nature Park, which opened earlier this year, is a model for another top recommendation in the master plan: Mow less. The parks department spends a large portion of its budget just mowing grass, more than 1,000 acres during the growing season, said Eddie Bird, parks superintendent. The Maple Avenue park is designed to require little mowing, allowing wild plants to grow freely in most areas. It was originally billed as a “no mo’ mow” park; however, a small portion near the front will still require mowing, Bird said.

“We liked it,” Booth said. “It was a nice walk around” the pond, a 1 kilometer trek.

Booth is a north-ender, so park planners would be happy that she and Diesel were using the new park. It is one of a dozen city “neighborhood parks,” designed to draw nearby residents, not necessarily the whole city. Most neighborhood parks are fewer than 10 acres in size, while larger, “community parks,” such as Deming, can be more than 100 acres.

Pretty but impractical

The city has nearly three dozen park properties to maintain and some – the smallest parks – may not be a good use of the parks department’s limited resources. A few of the tiniest parks, while adding aesthetic value, sometimes contain just a single picnic table, a bench or a flag pole. They are candidates for removal from the department’s list of responsibilities, according to the 2014-18 plan.

“We will strategically look at” finding ways to reduce the parks department’s maintenance load, said Mayor Duke Bennett Friday. “We’ve got to focus on the places that are utilized.”

A few tiny parks in the city are a half acre in size or smaller. These “block parks” often include only a sign, a few trees and a picnic table. One park, called “Five Triangles” or “Terre Town” on Lafayette Avenue and 25th Street, doesn’t even have a bench to sit on and is about the size of a volleyball court.

In the new master plan, such “under utilized” park properties are held up as candidates for “adopt-a-spot” partnerships with local businesses or neighborhood associations. The goal is to reduce the maintenance demands on park staff. Five Triangles is one example. Others identified as of little recreational use or as good “adopt-a-spot” candidates include Boy Scout Park at Lafayette and Barbour avenues, One Triangle at Eighth and Hulman streets, Vi Cottrell Park at Lafayette and First avenues and John M. Hanley Memorial Park at First and Hulman streets.

Another park, known as Paul Dresser Memorial Park, is a clear candidate for a change, the report states. The park, which is on the west side of the Wabash River on U.S. 40, is not even within the city limits. As the plan states, “The Terre Haute Parks and Recreation Department owns and maintains the facility, but few people use it or know that the park exists.” The plan calls for handing that park to the county, a proposal the mayor said he supports.

Urgent need at Sheridan Park

The plan also calls for building two to three “splash pads” in city parks by 2018, an idea Mayor Bennett said he supports. Splash pads are essentially playgrounds with water features for kids to play in and run through. Those are relatively inexpensive and low maintenance, Bennett said.

Perhaps the most urgent need for a splash pad, according to the plan, is at Sheridan Park, a neighborhood park where the long-time swimming pool was closed last year.

“A new splash pad is expected to be the centerpiece of the park revitalization plan,” the report states. “Without investment in this park, the city could see a serious decline in the surrounding [Sheridan Park] neighborhood in a few short years.”

The plan also calls for relocating the entrance to Collett Park, calling the existing entrance a “traffic hazard.” The current entrance is at Seventh and Maple where it creates essentially a five-way stop intersection.

Bennett said he also hopes to eventually make the golf courses financially self sufficient, something the plan echoes. In 2012, Rea Park made a profit, but Hulman Links historically loses “significant” amounts of money each year, according to the master plan. The plan calls for both courses to at least break even by 2017.

What can and can’t be done

Other ideas in the new 150-page master plan include some high-cost suggestions that, Bird said, might not be possible with the department’s limited budget. Some of those costly suggestions include upgrading the irrigation system at Hulman Links Golf Course, estimated at more than $1 million, and replacing the pool at Deming Park.

Bird laughs at both of those suggestions given his department’s tight funding. His first priority is to maintain the properties the parks system already has and that need repair, he said. The master plan states the maintenance facilities at the golf courses and at Dobbs Park are in dire need of roof and other repairs. Moving the Dobbs maintenance shed to a new location on Fruitridge Avenue, called 17 Acres Park, is also a priority, Bird said.

Still, funding sources are hard to predict, and big projects could still take place if grants can be obtained. That’s one big reason to have a “master plan,” Bird said. Without one, grants are generally impossible to receive, he said.

The master plan, which cost $13,000 to produce, also suggests fighting vandalism in the parks by hiring a part-time ranger. Bird said he supports that idea and is collecting data now to determine whether a ranger would be a good investment. He believes a part-time ranger would cost less than the city now spends repairing damage caused by vandals. Park bathrooms, among other things, are prime targets for vandalism.

Another idea in the master plan is for the Parks Board, a four-person body appointed by the mayor, to set up a Parks Foundation to raise money for the department. In a 2012 online survey of park users conducted by the parks department, 35 percent of respondents said they would donate to such a foundation. Sixty percent said they would need more information.

Flexibility is key

Despite its tight budget, the parks department has already managed to achieve some of the goals spelled out in the new master plan, including planting new, drought-resistant grass on the fairways at Hulman Links, a move that should reduce water and chemical usage at the golf course, Bird said. The plan also calls for expanding the miniature train ride in Deming Park, something a donation from Indiana Railroad may help make a reality in the not-too-distant future.

Mayor Bennett and Bird both said the plan is really a “blue print.” Things change, budgets are cut, grants are received, all of which makes flexibility a key ingredient in managing the parks department.

For example, the draft 2014-18 plan calls for a large baseball diamond to improve usage of Voorhees Park. Now, however, if the parks board gives its approval, Voorhees Park will instead become a home to a county-wide aquatic facility, something the plan’s authors could not have foreseen.

The plan also calls for improving facilities at the Spencer F. Ball Park, a neighborhood park on the north-side. Big improvements are taking place at the park now thanks to a recent parks department-organized fundraiser dedicating the softball field there in honor of hometown baseball legend Tommy John: again, something the plan’s authors could not have seen coming.

“Lots of things can happen along the way. Our goal is to pick off the easiest things or the least costly.” Bennett said. “We probably won’t be able to get it all done. The plan gives us a road map of what we’d like to do.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.

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