Although COVID-19 will limit what city staff can do over the next year, officials are still interested in pursuing some priority park projects.
As city staff began work on drafting a budget for fiscal year 2021, Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle was eager to delve into the first year of a decade-long park improvement initiative.
In 2019, the parks department shared a proposed $50 million master plan for managing city recreational facilities, the result of two years of work. The projects in the master plan sought to make up for deferred maintenance to existing amenities and enhance park offerings for residents.
Before staff could finalize a proposal for fiscal year 2021, the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic reshaped the city’s financial outlook. As a result, Fogle said, the parks department reassessed its priorities, scaling back both the short- and long-term scope of the master plan.
Fogle made clear he still believes parks are an important and beneficial asset for the city, something worth investing in. Still, he said staff understands the needs of the community have shifted over the past two months, and his department is willing to be more flexible as a result.
“The pandemic has opened our eyes up to say: Do we need to do this right now?” Fogle said. “If we are going to move forward with something, let’s keep it as low cost as possible but keep the biggest impact we could possibly have for the city.”
Fogle presented some details about the changes at Monday’s City Commission meeting. The overall cost of implementing the master plan has shrunk from $50 million to $35.3 million. Staff has identified nine projects it still hopes to pursue in 2021, estimated to cost just under $5 million.
Nearly half of that money would be dedicated to maintenance projects in Bayfront Park. Fogle said staff is prioritizing the park because it attracts visitors from throughout the city. Staff is proposing spending $989,000 to replace the Children’s Fountain at Bayfront Park, which Fogle said currently relies on equipment that no longer is manufactured. Another $400,000 would go toward replacing the playground at the park.
Staff is proposing using $2.64 million in impact fees to improve city parks — and, in one case, create a one. The plan Fogle presented Monday proposed setting aside $942,000 to procure land for a park in the Rosemary District, where residents have campaigned for more public open space.
Although staff has not locked in a site for the future Rosemary Park, it is speaking with the owner of two properties at the corner of Boulevard of the Arts and Central Avenue, a location neighborhood stakeholders have backed. Debbie Trice, president of the Rosemary District Association, spoke at Monday’s meeting and encouraged the commission to move forward with the project.
The remaining $1.7 million would go toward various improvements at existing parks, adding such amenities as lighting, signage, fitness areas, pavilions and gazebos.
The commission indicated it remains interested in park improvements despite the challenges COVID-19 poses, asking a series of questions about potential projects. Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie encouraged staff to prioritize land acquisition for new parks wherever feasible. She acknowledged expanding parks might not work financially right now but that it could be important in the future.
“At least if it’s listed as a strategic priority, it can be kept at the forefront, so that when opportunities arise, if it meets the budget, we can continue to have discussions,” Freeland Eddie said.
During Monday’s meeting, Fogle made clear staff is sensitive to the financial issues the city could be facing in the next fiscal year. He said it was not essential that the city replace the Children’s Fountain in 2021, though he believes it is important to address the property relatively soon.
At the same time, Fogle expressed hope the city would continue to prioritize parks to whatever extent is feasible when a budget is finalized this summer.
“What we do is incredibly important for the community,” Fogle said.