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Wednesday, June 29,2011

Let It Grow

’Naturalization,’ maintenance tension, smaller budgets and Lansing’s recreational assets

by Andy Balaskovitz

 


Parks break up the monotony of cities and make the city more beautiful—a better place in which to live. They preserve natural features such as rivers, lakes, etc., for the enjoyment of future generations. … In brief, recreational areas improve the health and general welfare of the citizens and are an investment, not a luxury.


— Lansing City Plan, drafted November 1938


“Let me put it on the table that there are more to parks than mowing them.”


Rick Kibbey, the president of Lansing’s
Parks Board had to preface our conversation that way because he knew he
couldn’t talk for two hours about long grass. Unmowed grass barely
scratches the surface.


“It seems like it’s been driving policy. You do have to mow them, it is a cost. But it’s not  the
only cost,” said Kibbey, who has served on the citizen advisory board
for eight years. He’s also been involved with urban planning for more
than 30 years.


“Parks mean so many different things to
different people,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just a place to go play
sports. Sometimes it’s just a place to rest your eyes. Sometimes it’s a
place to take a walk.”


Lansing’s park system is in flux. Nearly
all changes to it, past, present and future, can be traced to one
source: the budget. To save money, the city is seriously considering
“naturalizing” some parks —  basically,
letting the grass grow — but won’t say which ones. Talks of having
inmates pick up maintenance slack has surfaced, but that would have to
pass muster with the unions first. Hundreds of acres of former and
current golf courses could be or are already offered for private
development and management. Switching some parks duties to the Public
Service Department last year hasn’t been accepted by everyone. The
county is again being pursued to maintain that which the city can’t
afford.


Park leadership also has changed with the
retirement this month of Murdock Jemerson after 17 years with the city,
including 11 as director. But it’s inaccurate to say interim director
Brett Kaschinske is the “new guy”: He has been with the city a week
longer than Jemerson was, he said by phone while also announcing a track
meet Friday at Sexton High School.


“Those are some big shoes to fill,” Kaschinske said. “No doubt he was a great mentor and friend of mine.”


With all the uncertainty ahead for
Lansing’s parks, Kibbey said it’s important to recognize how unique
Lansing is for its amount of publicly owned green space and natural
habitats.


When asked where Lansing’s parks are headed, Kibbey responded: “I think the question is, ‘Where is Lansing headed?’”



Budget Turnover


On Friday, the city’s new fiscal year budget takes effect.
For the Parks and Recreation Department, that means three fewer
positions, a 15 percent reduction in the amount of forestry services
completed like tree trimming and tree removal, potentially less land to
maintain, fewer Capital Improvement Projects, spending parks millage
money differently, perhaps privately run cemeteries and golf courses and
higher fees for services. Expenditures on parks and recreation in
fiscal year 2010 was about $8 million; the next budget puts it slightly
below $7 million, which is about $350,000 less than this fiscal year’s
spending levels.


The Parks and Recreation Department makes up about 5
percent of the city’s operating budget. The department brings in about
$500,000 annually in fees.


In fiscal year 2006, the Parks and Recreation Department
had 79 more employees on staff that it will at the start of the 2012
fiscal year on Friday, when it will have 17. However, 18 of those were
transferred to Ingham County in 2008 when the county took over Potter
Park Zoo from the city, and 31 to the city’s Public Service Department
last year. Others were lost through attrition. In the coming fiscal
year, three full-time positions are being eliminated and two full-time
positions become part time. The staff changes mean the department is
becoming more recreation- and administrative-oriented and less
maintenance-driven.


During the April community budget hearings, the suggestion
to close the Moores Park swimming pool surfaced but never came to
fruition. The costs of improvements are huge, Kaschinske said, and the
city decided to keep it open rather than make them. It’s operating with
one less sand filter than normal and drainage questions persist.


“We’re operating on borrowed time there,” he said, adding
that it’s still safe to swim in the pool. “It passed all (annual) state
inspections. If it doesn’t pass, you can’t operate.”


The city also has $2.1 million available in parks millage
funds this fiscal year. A majority of that — $1.96 million — will be
used to fund kids camps and for parks maintenance. About $600,000 of
that is for golf and cemetery subsidies. Kaschinske said those subsidies
may be temporary, depending on if the city finds a private company to
manage them at a lower cost than the subsidy.


That leaves less than $150,000 for “Capital Improvement
Projects.” In the past two fiscal years, the city budgeted more than $1
million annually for capital parks improvements.


Budget reductions mean “our challenge is to use the
technology that’s available better,” Kaschinske said, referring to
online registration for activities “instead of calling into one of the
community centers.”


He said applications from private firms to take over the
three cemeteries and Groesbeck Golf Course are still being evaluated.
“That’s tops on the agenda for the next fiscal year.”


As for asking Lansing voters to sell a portion of the
former Red Cedar Golf Course and the former Waverly Golf Course and
adjacent Michigan Avenue Park — an administration proposal that failed
to get past the City Council: “We’re going to try to do that again.” His
department is still working with the Council to get answers to their
questions, Kaschinske said. And while relatively specific plans are in
place for Red Cedar, that’s not true for Waverly: “That needs getting
the public together and finding out what they want to do.”


Kaschinske said the city is also working
on finalizing negotiations with the county to turn over some park
maintenance to it. The Parks Department budget recommendation suggested
the county maintain city parks smaller than five acres (the city has 41
such parks), the River Trail and its adjacent parks.




Naturalization


One way a parks department can save money is to leave land alone to generally create a more natural setting. 


Kaschinske said a list of parks to be
naturalized is being drafted, but would not give details on which ones
until it’s finalized. Plenty of input from residents, neighborhood
groups, the Parks Board and the Public Service Department will go into
that process before any decisions are made, he said.


“You can do plantings of trees to make it forested, you
can set it aside and let nature take its course. There are many
different ways and methods to naturalize a park. Each one depends on
what is there currently,” he said. “Obviously, we’re not going to
naturalize a park where currently there is recreation or playgrounds.”


Kaschinske said wildlife considerations also come into
play. For instance, if there’s a “goose problem” (when too many
congregate along a riverbank with short grass, the feces really piles
up), it might be a good idea to let it grow long in order to discourage
people from walking there and geese form congregating there.


Judy Evans, who lives on Sparrow Street just south and
west of Moores Park, was clearing out some ground-cover ivy along her
sidewalk Saturday evening. She likes the idea of letting the grass grow
in some parks.


“It took a little while before the first mow (this year),
which is OK by me,” she said. “When they didn’t mow, the flowers were
really pretty.”


Evans has lived a few hundred feet from Moores Park for 24
years. She said the idea of naturalizing some areas is “more
environmentally sound.” 


“They were mowing it every week when they had money,” she said. “If they wanna not mow and hire another police officer, fine.”


Kaschinske also said the city is interested in exploring
working with the courts to have inmates do some maintenance. “Obviously
our parks are maintained by union employees,” he said. “We’re always
willing to explore and need to work with the unions to make sure
everyone is on board with that.”


Evans is open to that idea, too. “I’d rather have them
working than sitting around not working. I don’t think there’s a
security risk at all.”




Parks to Public Service


Around this time last year as this fiscal year budget took
effect, 31 grounds and forestry positions from the Parks Department
moved to the Public Service Department. Kibbey said this move is “a very
sore point.” 


He said the thought was: “‘Since we (public service) have
to mow anyhow, why don’t we take the grounds and forestry people and the
money? We’ll (public service) be the contractor for the city and you
(parks) tell us what you want done and we’ll do that.’” Kibbey said
“it’s just another layer of bureaucracy.”


Kibbey added that with some Public Service employees doing
some work that parks employees had been doing, a lack of communication
has developed. 


“There’s a difference between liming a softball field and
installing a sewer line,” Kibbey said. “We’ve had a real problem getting
our contractor to tell us what they’re doing. We didn’t hear jack from
them for six months. It’s not a slam on Chad (Gamble, Public Service
director) — he’s a highly competent civil engineer.


“The Parks Board has said on several occasions that they’d
like parks people doing parks work under parks supervision,” Kibbey
said.


Kaschinske said the move was nothing more than moving the
same positions into a different department and downplays Kibbey’s
claims.


“The public wants their parks maintained to high
standards,” he said. “I don’t think they’re concerned with who does it.
If there’s a problem that it’s not being maintained well, we’ll discuss
it.”


Kaschinske said Parks and Public Service talk weekly on park needs. 


“I wouldn’t say there’s any more bureaucracy to it,” he said.




Tree City


Toward the beginning of our conversation at Emil’s
restaurant on the east side on a recent Friday, Kibbey recalls being
“stunned” by a report on Potter Park that was required reading in his
early years on the Parks Board.


“Forestry is what brought me to the Parks Board in the
first place,” Kibbey said. “(The area surrounding Potter Park) is a
climax oak forest at its height. Fully mature in the middle of the city?
I was stunned. It’s a real Hansel and Gretel-type forest.” 


That forest covers more than 700 acres in the northern
portion of the 2nd Ward. It includes two cemeteries, while 200 acres of
it is Crego Park, Lansing’s largest park, which landed $500,000 in state
money in April that will go toward reopening it after 20 years of
dormancy. “To think it’s just a swamp completely misses the dynamism of
all the life cycles going on there,” Kibbey said.


The Arbor Day Foundation recognized Lansing 26 years ago
as a “Tree City USA,” one of 119 such communities in Michigan. The
National Recreation and Park Association’s park and open space
guidelines say communities should have about six to 10 acres of park
land per 1,000 people; Lansing has 17.7 acres per 1,000 people.


The city’s website lists 112 dedicated parkland properties
within the city limits, which include three cemeteries and four golf
courses. That’s not including about 13 miles of River Trail and four
community centers (the South Side Community Center is leased from
Lansing School District). Turner Park in Old Town is the city’s smallest
park: .04 acres. The total acreage of Lansing’s park properties is
about 2,200 — slightly smaller than the size of Mackinac Island.


“That’s a lot of damn land for a city this size. It’s a wonderful gift,” Kibbey said.


And a majority of Lansing voters have supported park millages, approving them three times in a row since 2000.


Melissa Nixon, 24, was walking through
Moores Park Friday with her friend Katie Brokkaw’s family. She, along
with 72 percent of city voters, voted for renewing the parks millage
last August.


“We go to Moores Park almost every day,” she said. “It’s important for people and their family to play in the park.”


Munya Maumbe, 37, also supported the
latest parks millage. As he was walking with his three children in
Maguire Park Friday, he thinks there’s still room for improvement. “(I
use Lansing parks) three to four times a week. The parks are OK right
now. (We) need some lifeguards.”


Kibbey said Lansing owes its unique
natural landscape to some of the city’s first park advocates, like H.
Lee Bancroft, Lansing’s first city forester. He credits them with the
foresight of lining the Grand and Red Cedar rivers with parks, which is
still evident today.


When you get down to it, Kibbey said parks are about economic development.


“When competing for jobs, that’s creating
a place where people want to live. They want a place to canoe, kayak,
walk, do tai chi in the park, a place with greenhouses. They want to see
an elevated importance to the quality of their environment, and, boy,
if you can throw a river or two in there, you have something,” he said.
“And son of a gun, isn’t that what the Parks Department does?”


Kibbey added the “economic development folks here understand that” and are  committed to the same vision as Lansing’s founders.


“Lansing has shown 100-plus years of commitment to its parks,” he said. “It’s important we continue to honor that commitment.”

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