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City will try to find volunteers to help with lots

STEUBENVILLE — The city’s Parks and Recreation board agreed Wednesday to try and recruit reliable volunteers to mow and weedwack tot lots before closing any of them.

At Parks Director Lori Fetherolf’s request, board members decided to host community meetings to talk about the future of the tot lots and gauge how willing townspeople are to help with their upkeep.

“I think no less than two meetings so the community can come and we can (explain the situation),” Fetherolf said, pointing out it won’t be the first time they’ve tried to spur community involvement. “The last time (we asked) we had people step up, but then it died off,” she said.

“I’d like to explain (the situation) and give people a chance to sign up and if they don’t, then we shut them down,” board President Ken Peterson said.

Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn, who chairs council’s recreation committee, said she’d informally surveyed residents living near three of the four tot lots — Linda Way, Devonshire and Parkdale — and had identified several people willing to take on mowing duties at sites in their neighborhoods. She said several young parents had told her they chose to live in a particular neighborhood based on its proximity to a playground.

“I believe it would be good to set up a two-year agreement (with volunteers),” Hahn added. “It’s not a contract, we’re not paying them.”

Hahn said it would give the board a chance to “see if their efforts pan out.”

“Then, in two years, you could re-evaluate whether you have the staff to take it on again yourselves,” Hahn said. “I think what’s holding people back is fear, ‘Am I making a commitment for the rest of my life?’ Let’s limit it to two years.”

Hahn also suggested asking council to cover the cost of gasoline for the mowers.

“We can’t give them equipment because they’re not city employees,” she said. “We can’t pay them. But if we could at least find a way to pay for their gas. It could take away some of the cost burden. Then, I think we’d need to evaluate equipment to see if there’s one piece that needs updated.”

Hahn said residents living near the three tot lots she’d surveyed indicated the sites were being used. She said she hadn’t been able to talk to anyone living near the 12.5 acre Flats tot lot. She said she’s planning go back and try again.

Peterson, though, said he likes the idea of hosting community meetings, “it’s more advantageous to get people in the area to come” and if there’s no interest in helping maintain the sites, “it’s possible city council could choose to close” them.

“I like the idea of a two-year (commitment), so we’re not rehashing it every year,” Fetherolf added.

City Manager Jim Mavromatis said he’d liked to see signed statements from any volunteers “so I know who’s going to do what” to preserve tot lots.

The board also chose a handful of projects to fund in 2020, including a digital sign to advertise activities and signups at the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center; improving a couple of ball fields, updating the concession stand at the pool, varnishing the MLK Recreation Center floor and roof repairs to shelters and bathrooms.

Fetherolf pointed out in 2021, the board won’t have that luxury because city council had already decided the money will be used as local matching funds for the shared use path to the marina.

“We will not have any capital funding (in 2021), it’s all going for the shared use path to the marina,” she said, adding it will also impact her ability to apply for grants. “We use that money for matching grants, so I won’t be apply to apply for any that year.”

Hahn explained that Brooke-Hancock-Jefferson Metropolitan Planning Commission was paying 80 percent of the shared path cost, “we’re only paying 20 percent.” She said the trail will “tie into a lot of different” things

Tempers flared during the public comment period, as recurring objections to a proposal to reimagine the North End Park as a “miracle field” quickly devolved into suggestions that there’s too much league programming at the Martin Luther King Recreation Center on Market Street.

Peterson told the two “nothing solid” had been decided about the park’s future.

“We looked at his proposal,” Peterson said. “We have not accepted it, we have not denied it. It would have a huge impact (on the community). If City Council decides it wants to explore (the idea), then I think we’re going to want input from the community.”

That sparked debate about who in the community should have a voice in what happens at the North End Park, with one woman saying children from the downtown neighborhoods who’d participated in a free food program at Jim Woods Park had been made to feel unwelcome by an adult who at one point had told them to go back to “their” park.

“It’s not ‘your’ park and it’s not ‘my’ park,” a frustrated Fetherolf said. “It’s everybody’s park.”

“We all know North End is a black, low-income park, I have no problem with that,” the woman replied. “But people made those remarks to kids on the free food program.”

She also pointed out North End residents had not asked for a miracle field and questioned why it was being forced on them.

“We asked for a splash pad and a new shelter, that’s all we ever wanted there,” she said.

Royal Mayo complained that the programming being done at MLK to keep kids busy and off the streets is making it hard for walk-ins to use the facility.

Fetherolf pointed out that when she was hired just over two years ago, there was little programming and MLK usage was at an all-time low. Since then leagues have formed and the facility has become a community center, she said, with activities for all ages, particularly young people.

“You’re welcome to look at the numbers,” she told Mayo.

Former board member Sandi Rue defended the scheduling, telling Mayo the MLK Recreation Center is not the only facility to restrict use of pools and gyms for organized league activities. Rue said she, like board member Garfield Hayden, frequently exercise at Weirton’s Millsop Community Center and said it’s not uncommon for the pool or gym there to be closed, too, for rec league games and practices as well as school use. Mayo interrupted, claiming it was a different situation because Millsop was privately owned, but Rue corrected him, pointing out Millsop is, in fact, owned by the city of Weirton. She also insisted he allow her to talk without interruption just as she had listened to him when he was speaking.

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