Board eyes support to keep parks open

STEUBENVILLE — The city Board of Parks and Recreation is giving 30 days to find community support to keep four neighborhood parks and playgrounds open.

The board made that decision Wednesday after hearing for about an hour from residents who were making a case for keeping the parks open. The board is considering closure of tot lots and playgrounds at Devonshire, Parkdale, Linda Way and the Flats. City Council asked for a recommendation about the parks more than a year ago.

On an initial vote, board President Ken Peterson and board member Vicki Nurczyk voted against closing the parks. Board member Kelly Herrmann suggested the 30-day period to try to organize a volunteer effort to save any of the four parks before a final recommendation is made to City Council. She said if a park isn’t supported, then the vote to close it should take place.

Recreation Director Lori Fetherolf said she liked the idea and 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna said he agreed.

Fetherolf said there are 13 parks, including the ballfields at Belleview, Murphy Field on Pleasant Heights and North End Field to maintain, with two full-time staff members and three seasonal workers. She said it takes a full day for one person to drag, prepare and line the city ballfields.

Paul Biacco said he volunteered to adopt the Linda Way park for years and never received an official answer from the city. He said he and his neighbors still would volunteer.

Mark Giannini, a Braybarton resident, said as a real estate appraiser, he knows parks add value to residential property and a closed park can detract from value, further reducing tax revenue. He said the city needs to weigh the cost of maintaining the parks against what it could lose by closing the parks. He said demographics in the city are changing as a new generation of property owners moves into subdivisions that were developed in the 1960s.

“The last thing you want to do is close a facility which has a hand in attracting people to the neighborhood. We are not only losing people who move to larger cities. We are losing people to Wintersville and Weirton and Toronto. I think we are just shooting ourselves in the foot, especially with younger-profile families who look at these places as a desirable amenity, even if they are not used frequently,” Giannini said.

He said the city needs to communicate better with people through social media. He said he wasn’t aware of the parks being at risk until he read it in the newspaper.

Peterson, who said he would not vote to close the parks even if support doesn’t materialize in a month, said people in the neighborhoods do not want expensive playground equipment installed, just repairs to the equipment that is there. Fetherolf said the high cost would be incurred if new equipment was installed because it would have to meet current standards. She said older equipment can be repaired and kept without having to be upgraded.

Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn, who chairs council’s recreation committee, cautioned the high costs aren’t just about mowing grass at the parks. As an example, she said when mulch was put in around a playset at the North End Field, the requirements are to have it be at least a foot deep. The mulch ended up costing $20,000.

She said the parks won’t add value to property if they have broken equipment and are not maintained well.

She said the 30-day period must not just be “kicking the can down the road.”

Villamagna noted there were no young families at the board meeting. He said no one takes closing parks lightly and said Belleview pool was saved when volunteers and businesses stepped in when council gave it a reprieve.

He said there simply isn’t the manpower to keep up all the parks and the city needs to concentrate on keeping its major parks at Belleview, Jim Wood Park, Murphy Field and North End in “pristine condition.”

Shawn Babella said the disc golf organization will continue to maintain Beatty Park, but it needs to have fallen trees removed from its course and three bridges replaced.

Residents asked why community service workers can’t be used to help at the parks. Villamagna said the city is using community service workers to clear more than 200 vacant lots around the city this summer. He also said community service is a choice by an individual going through the court system, which cannot order people to work instead of going to jail.

Sandi Rue, a former recreation board member, said her church, Mount Carmel Community Baptist Church, is adopting North End Field to help maintain it. She said the Belleview pool effort was a stopgap intended to keep the pool going until the city was able to take it over again. She said she’s not sure businesses should be asked to take over parks forever.

“We need to realize we are not the city of 30,000 (people) anymore. We are down to 17,000 or 18,000 and we can’t afford to have as many parks as we have and have them maintained unless somebody goes to do it,” Rue said. “It takes a community to raise a child and it takes a community to sustain a community.”