Local woman ignites skate park initiative
After 44 years of serving the greater Merrill area, the Municipal Swimming Pool at Stanges Park officially closed following the summer of 2012. The Merrill Area Recreation Complex (MARC) being chosen for the site of a new aquatic center last spring left many questions and few answers of what the future holds for the former pool site. Even more questions were raised upon the demolition of the pool in early May.
However thanks to a local woman taking a vested interest in improving and relocating the aging Prairie River Skate Park, a solution for both the skate park and Stanges Park may be at hand.
The O’Neill family relocated to Merrill in 2006 and ever since, the idea of a new skate park in the city has been on Heather’s radar.
“I acquired an interest in skateboarding when we lived in San Diego,” she explains. “After all, California is the birthplace of the modern skate park. While living in southern California, my husband Tom and I owned and operated a small commercial printing company. Our primary customer base came from big names in action sports including motocross, professional biking and skateboarding so we learned a great deal about these types of sports and activities.
“We eventually decided we wanted a change and get out of the big city. We chose Merrill as our new home and when we moved here, the skate park immediately caught my eye. I thought kids would be safer having a park in a safer location. It was concerning for me to watch kids racing across the street in busy traffic to get to the park. Over time I just felt they deserved something better and newer than what they have now, a modern skate park.
“The skate park was good for the 15 years since it’s been built but it’s time for something new. “
Armed with a desire for change, motivation and a vision for a new park in the city, O’Neill set about researching and planning to make her vision a reality.
In witnessing the many changes in the city over the last year, O’Neill decided the time was right to bring her proposal to light.
“This year has been a time of change and re-vitalization in the city. We recently watched as a beautiful new aquatic center went up and now I think we can put up an amazing new skate park. I feel the time has come to make something happen.” she adds. “The time is right.”
Last month O’Neill began her trek forward by announcing her vision in the local newspaper and soon after, formed “The Merrill Skate Park Initiative.”
Thus far, O’Neill has been very pleased with the response.
“I have not yet met any opposition. Everyone I have spoken to has been very supportive. If my vision comes true, Merrill will be home to the biggest and best action sports venue in the entire state. It will provide not only an economic draw but a recreation alternative for the community and surrounding areas.”
Included in O’Neill’s vision is a professionally-designed and constructed 25,000-square-foot concrete park complete with galvanized steel and granite (where appropriate) bleachers, lighting, a covered shelter and rest rooms.
The park would be designed to accommodate a variety of action sports including skateboarding, BMX and scooter riders, casterboarders and in-line roller skaters.
At a rate of $40/sq ft. for concrete, O’Neill is well aware the road won’t be easy or cheap in accomplishing her vision. The park alone comes with a $1 million price tag.
Undaunted by the cost figures, O’Neill took her proposal to the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission last week.
“I feel the best location for this venue is Stange’s Park,” O’Neill stated as part of the near 30-minute presentation. “This park fits all of the criteria which includes a central location, a site that is safe and highly visible, a large buildable area which is not already allocated to another project, already has off-street parking, mainly free of trees, close to Prairie River Middle School and is located on a main road.
“Quality of life is a general measurement of a community’s well-being,” she added in closing.
“Correctly designed and built skate parks add to the quality of life of a community by encouraging feelings of place and pride… important things that I believe Merrill needs to get back,” she said. “A town or a city that creates a good quality of life for its residents is one that retains its population and sense of community. An active skate park also increases tourism, promotes a healthy lifestyle, reduces crime, positively affects mental health, reduces drug use and broadens community involvement. I hope with this presentation I have inspired many of you to support this project financially or otherwise.”
Commissioner and former 6th District alderman Dave Sukow enjoyed the presentation, but is also cognizant of the issue of finances as well as other hurdles which O’Neill will have to overcome.
“I thought the presentation was great and Mrs. O’Neill has a wonderful idea here, but this sort of thing won’t be cheap,” Sukow said. “As a department, we don’t have the funds to help her. We don’t even have the funds to finish the bathrooms at Normal Park. We were very lucky to get a beautiful aquatic center thanks to the help of the Bierman Foundation. Without them, the aquatic center wouldn’t be here. Money will be her biggest obstacle and then there are issues with a skate park going in there at Stanges. The reason we couldn’t put the aquatic center in there was because FEMA wouldn’t let us. Once they learned the size of the center was bigger than the footprint of the old pool, they put the kibosh on that due to the flood plain.
“We offered maybe Streeter Square would work but Mrs. O’Neill didn’t like that idea so we will have a look at some different options and invited her to come to our August meeting to discuss what we come up with. I also have some concerns about how much interest a skate park would attract. A swimming pool and aquatic center is attractive for all ages, I’m not so sure with a skate park. But regardless I’m sure our kids would use it quite a bit so I would love to see it happen and I’m sure the Parks and Rec Commission will do everything we can to help her out to get it done.”
Parks and Recreation Director Dan Wendorf was also pleased with O’Neill’s presentation. He indicated, although the future is uncertain of whether a skate park like that of O’Neill’s vision will come to fruition, he is looking forward to future discussion of the idea.
“I’m well aware the city and the Parks and Rec Commission aren’t able to help with the cost,” O’Neill adds. “Money is very tight and I understand that. I am hoping and praying community members and groups will come together to help me make this happen. I sincerely feel this would be a wonderful addition to our community.”
Those interested in learning more about the Merrill Skate Park Initiative or in assisting with the initiative are asked to contact O’Neill at 715-536-5974 or 715-302-8258. O’Neill can also be reached via email at MerrillSkatepark@gmail.com.