Public hearing to continue on 5-year parks plan
About 45 people attended the first of two public hearings last week on the city of Merrill’s 2013-2018 Five-Year Outdoor Recreation Plan. The hearing will be continued Feb. 6.
The plan, developed by North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (NCWRCP) under the direction of the city Park & Recreation Department, will be used to identify new projects for development and existing facilities in need of refurbishing. The plan enables the city to be eligible for competitive federal and state outdoor recreation grant money that typically pays half the cost of each project.
The city owns and maintains approximately 281 acres of parkland, plus an additional 920 acres in the Merrill Memorial Forest, located about 6 miles north of the city. Long known as the City of Parks, Merrill features 13 city parks.
Two visioning sessions were held in September and October 2012 to engage the public. Out of those sessions, a number of priorities for the parks system were identified, including: link pedestrian/bike trails, build restroom facilities, continue to upgrade athletic facilities, improve communication between parks user groups and the city, increase Park & Recreation Department resources, and develop an effective marketing plan.
The plan lays out specific projects that may be budgeted over the next five years. All listed projects may not be completed. Projects noted include:
2013-construct dog park, Lions Park restroom ADA remodel, begin work on Aquatic Center development, begin work on River Bend Trail development, begin implementation of Bike Route Designation routes, Riverside Park trail improvements, Gebert Park trail improvements, develop master plan for Normal Park, new infield at Athletic Park.
2014- continue work on Aquatic Center development, sandblast & repaint Riverside Park shelter, construct restroom facility at Normal Park, begin implementation of master plan for Normal Park, construct restroom facility at Prairie Trails Park, install lights on varsity softball field at MARC, continue River Bend trail development, irrigation to athletic fields at MARC, continue Bike Route Designation routes, emergency exit route established at MARC.
2015- lights on varsity soccer field at MARC, explore curling capabilities at Smith Center, improvements/addition to Riverside Park disc golf course, restroom facility by MARC adult ball fields, new lights at Athletic Park, finish and open new Aquatic Center, finish River Bend Trail from Center Ave to Council Grounds, continue Bike Route Designation routes, continue implementation of Normal Park Master Plan, construct basketball courts at MARC.
2016- begin working to establish the River Bend Trail as a State Trail, begin working on connectivity of Bearskin/Hiawatha State Trails to Mountain Bay State Trail via newly constructed River Bend Trail, new field lights at Ott’s Park, continue Bike Route Designation routes, continue implementation of Normal Park Master Plan.
2017- repave parking lot at Stange Park, lagoon bridge replacements at Stange Park, construct meeting/banquet “4-season” room above community room in Smith Center, continue Bike Route Designation routes, continue implementation of Normal Park Master Plan, trail expansion at Prairie Trails.
2018- install lights at Lions Park baseball complex, City Forest road and trail improvements, construct visitor center at City Forest, build new shelter with Council Grounds and WDNR along joint trail on south end of MARC, re-stain/seal Kitchenette restroom building.
Inclusion in the plan does not guarantee any project will be completed in the specified year, or at all. But, being noted in the plan does make each project eligible for state or federal funds.
“The Parks Department and the city can decide when or if these projects are going to happen,” said Fred Heider of NCWRPC.
Of 26 projects noted in the 2008-2013 plan, only five were completed.
At last Wednesday’s public hearing, several people provided comments on the draft plan.
Sue Weith of Merrill spoke in favor of creating better and safer pedestrian and bicycle routes in town. She had been involved in a “Bike to School Week” at Merrill schools during which increased safety measures were implemented so students could ride to school safely. While participation was high during that week, most parents surveyed afterward didn’t feel it was safe for their children to continue riding to school.
“Very few children continued to bike to school because the parents said there were no safe bike lanes in town,” she said.
The River Bend Trail was a topic of discussion. The River District Development Foundation of Merrill is pursuing plans to utilize abandoned railroad bed to develop a trail from downtown to Council Grounds State Park.
Speaking as a Merrill resident, City Administrator Dave Johnson said the city should be fiscally prudent in how it approaches a potentially expensive project such as the River Bend Trail.
“I’d like to see the foundation fund the project,” he said. “I don’t believe the city has the funding.”
Gene Bebel, president of the River District Foundation of Merrill, noted that the foundation is about to embark on a $1 million fund raising campaign to pursue the River Bend Trail. Having the trail included in the city’s recreation plan opens the door for grant funding, he added.
“There are grants available but they are only available to us if the project is included in the city plan,” Bebel said. “We haven’t asked the city for participation in the development of the trail.”
Speaking later as city administrator, Johnson said he fully supports the concept of the River Bend Trail.
“I think it’s going to bring a lot to the community,” he said. “My only concern is who is going to pay for it.”
Mayor Bill Bialecki said he’d like to see some of the projects revisited that were included in the 2008-2013 plan but not completed. He specifically noted the need for trail improvements at Prairie Trails Park, Riverside Park and Gebert Park. According to the plan, Gebert Park, a 15-acre conservancy area south of Riverside Avenue, is “very heavily under-utilized” and the trail system could use extensive work.
Bialecki also urged more immediate attention to the Merrill Memorial Forest.
“This property is priceless,” he said, “and it’s been neglected for years. That 920 acres is just sitting out there and we own it.”
The Park & Recreation Commission voted to delay a decision on the plan to give the community more time to view the draft and provide input. Park & Recreation Director Dan Wendorf said the plan is supposed to be submitted to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources by Jan. 1. He would need to inform the DNR on the city’s progress on the plan.
Wendorf thanked the members of the public who were involved in the development of the plan.
“This was by far the most engaging (plan process) as far as public input,” he said.
The meeting and public hearing will be continued on Feb. 6, starting at 6 p.m. in the Merrill City Hall council chambers.
The plan can be viewed at www.ncwrpc.org/lincoln/merrill-orp.html, in the T.B. Scott Library reference section, or in the Merrill Parks & Recreation Department.
Those unable to attend the public hearing may email comments to Dan Wendorf, director of the Parks Department at Dan.Wendorf@ci.merrill.wi.us, or Fred Heider, planner at NCWRPS, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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