$17M parks campaign near completion

Some say campaign to improve Springfield, Clark County parks a success, but others worry about maintaining them.

Community leaders involved in the process believe the campaign has been a success, despite bumps in the road, such as a struggle to pass a levy and to make the pool break even.

“We’ve done everything that was listed with the exception of the ice facility, which is now underway,” said Tom Loftis, one of the community leaders who raised money for the capital campaign. “It has been successful. The usage of the parks, the Splash Zone and the improvements to the baseball facility – all of those are receiving heavy use and that was the purpose of it.”

Some residents believe the money has been wasted because it has taken too long to complete, especially the Family Ice Arena and Expo Center.

“Do what you say you are, when you say you will do it,” said Springfield resident Richard Hearlihy.

National Trail Chief Executive Officer Leann Castillo said the goal is to maintain those facilities and create programming to fully use them.

“We need to evolve those facilities as the trends and needs of the community change,” Castillo said.

The beginning

In the late 1990s, according to Loftis, the parks were getting tired.

“They needed to be refreshed,” said Loftis, a developer with Midland Properties.

In 2000, the city, county and Clark County Park District programs merged to create National Trail and kick off the $17 million capital campaign.

The campaign was paid for through a combination of private donations and public money, including a one-year, half-percent sales tax approved by county commissioners in 2001. The tax generated about $5 million.

As part of the campaign, matching grants went to 11 township and village parks.

The first major project — Carleton Davidson Stadium — opened in 2004, replacing the old Municipal Stadium, which had deteriorated for years.

The Splash Zone Family Aquatic Center opened in 2007, replacing the former Family Waterworks. The new water park has slides, a spray ground and other amenities the previous pool didn’t offer.

Several other projects were included, such as the lights at the annex baseball fields, the skateboard park on Mitchell Boulevard and the barn relocation at George Rogers Clark Park.

The ice arena was delayed in large part because it switched sites twice before finally beginning construction this month at its current location, the former Haucke complex on West Main Street near Lowry Avenue.

The original site was where Ohio Valley Surgical Hospital Center is now, and then it was planned to go at the former Memorial Hall site.

“We’ve had several setbacks, but they were good setbacks,” City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill said.

The ice arena is expected to open this fall in partnership with the Columbus-based Chiller Group, which operates several ice rinks in Central Ohio.

Loftis said he understands the ice rink’s detractors but believes it will evolve similar to the way soccer did in the 1970s.

“It’s like anything else. We don’t have one here, so people say, ‘Where are the users?’ ” Loftis said. “I think there are people who go out of town to participate in ice skating, hockey or anything else. I think it will be a great winter activity center we don’t currently have.”

Springfield resident Gene McAllister said the district can build new facilities, “but can’t manage them.”

The district has been unable to make its revenue-generating operations – like the Splash Zone – self-sustaining. The pool has yet to break even since it opened in 2007.

Last year, Castillo said Splash Zone was close to breaking even, but bad weather in July and August slowed attendance figures. She said the pool must have minimum staffing of 17 people to operate each day.

The district is looking at alternative ways to use the pool, such as fitness classes in the mornings, to generate revenue.

Regardless, Castillo said a need remains for a public pool in the city limits.

“It’s a service we need to provide,” Castillo said. “If we didn’t provide that, where would those people go?”

Maureen Massaro, chairwoman of the National Trail board, said park improvements have added to the county’s quality of life and economic development.

“When people move here, they want to know what is there to do in your town?” Massaro said.

Loftis said there are no silver bullets in a campaign such as this one.

“There’s no one thing that changes the community,” Loftis said. “It’s a series of things that you do. If you look at the overall package that was the capital campaign, it makes it a little bit nicer, a better place to live and more attractive to outsiders. I think from that point of view, it’s successful.”

Less funds

While the capital campaign provided new facilities for NTPRD, the district now has less funding available to operate them. It also ended its maintenance agreement with the Clark County Park District, although the two districts now share a levy.

In 2001, the city provided $1 million in operating money and $900,000 in capital funds. This year, the city provided $1.1 million in operating money and $50,000 in capital money.

Clark County funding has also dropped since 2004, when National Trail received $329,700. Last year, county commissioners provided $38,000.

“We really need more support from the county,” Massaro said. “The loss of funds from the county has really created a challenge for National Trail.”

Meanwhile, some programming costs have increased.

“A lot of times we have to raise our prices to cover costs,” Castillo said. “The community is feeling that, too, because everything in their life is raising. Sometimes people don’t realize when their (costs) raise, it raises the same for us. We have to be able to cover our costs and work within our means, but still offer good quality things for families to do together.”

Some improvements — like painting the stadium and Splash Zone — have been delayed due to funding.

Mark Miller, the former NTPRD marketing/special projects manager who retired in 2009, believes the campaign has been a success, but the stadium needs maintenance — it’s due for a paint job later this summer — as it enters its 10th season. The field itself has also been maintained by Wittenberg University, which partnered with NTPRD to build the stadium.

The district would have liked to paint the stadium about three years ago, but Castillo said it had to save the money first.

“The same with Splash Zone,” she said. “It would be wonderful if we could have the pool painted every two years, but we can’t do that. We have to save the money to make sure we can do it in an effective and efficient manner.”

The district budget this year is about $4.79 million, up about $40,000 from last year. NTPRD is funded through contributions from both the city and the county, as well as a countywide parks and green spaces levy it shares with the Clark County Park District. The city contributed about $1.1 million in operating money, while the county contributed $25,000.

The five-year, 0.6-mill property tax levy passed in 2011 is projected to generate about $1.1 million this year. National Trail went on the ballot several times before voters passed a levy.

The levy dollars are used for maintenance of parks and green spaces, not its revenue-generating operations like golf or the swimming pool.

“The organization is being very responsible with those resources and fulfilling the commitment we made to the public,” Massaro said.

The future

The face of parks and recreation across the country has also changed since National Trail was created in 1999. Former CEO Tim Smith, who retired from for the second time last year, said he could see it coming.

“It wasn’t just softball and baseball programs,” Smith said. “It was going into bike trails, more things with action to them. It had to offer more venues within the pool itself.”

Currently, National Trail offers a range of programs, including sports like baseball and soccer, and non-traditional activities like Tai Chi and knitting. It also offers more activities for young children and families.

“We’re trying to provide for people an alternative they may not have had,” Castillo said.

For example, several current and former NTPRD leaders said the most-used facility is the skateboard park.

The face of athletics has also changed in that time. More sports leagues are offered through schools and churches and fewer kids opt to play in recreational leagues.

“We just don’t have the interest where we can run a full league anymore, but there’s still that need for it for those kids who may not be able to afford it, or may not have the access to get to these places,” Castillo said. “We’re really in a tough spot there.

“We have to weigh what is a need in something that we’re doing in our community compared to something that can be offered other places,” Castillo said.

Castillo said the district is working hard to use its assets — such as community organizers renting Carleton Davidson Stadium or the Annex — for the community, even though it may not run the actual leagues.

“We need to provide for children in the community,” Castillo said. “A lot of times they may not be completely self-sustaining, but we’re providing a service and an outlet for children in our community.”

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