There was nothing for the kids,” Cynthia Vasser said of the old Doyle Park, as she ate her lunch and watched aircraft take off from Brookley Field. “There was no playground. It was old and out of date.”
From one of the two viewing pavilions, surrounded by the soft, rubberized surface meant to provide better accessibility for children with disabilities, Vasser remarked about the changes her neighborhood park had undergone.
“It had nothing like this,” she said, as she looked around. “This is very nice.”
The park, which was transformed using $1.7 million from the nonprofit Friends of Doyle Park group, now has a large, aerospace-themed playground and a number of ball fields, including a “Field of Dreams” or “Champions” field, which has a rubberized surface and other amenities.
It is located on land that used to be part of Brookley and sits adjacent to the airfield, Mobile Airport Authority Executive Director Roger Wehner said at the 10th anniversary celebration of the Airbus Engineering Center’s opening in Mobile this past Monday. It was a partnership with Airbus and other businesses at Brookley that helped bring the park upgrades to fruition.
From the 24-acre park, visitors can watch as planes completed at the Airbus final assembly line rumble down a runway for testing. On Monday, Vasser and others witnessed an A320 with a Delta insignia on its vertical stabilizer take to the sky.
“I love to watch the planes come in and go out,” Vasser said.
That’s the point of the updates, Wehner said — to get residents in the community, especially children, excited about the aerospace industry. The viewing pavilions provide a way to do that.
“The park overlooks runway 14-32, our primary runway,” he said. “When major aircraft take off, you can hear it, smell it and feel it.”
The idea of making the takeoffs viewable is part of a cradle-to-career workforce model, Wehner said.
“If we can get kids playing out there to see that there’s an opportunity for them in aerospace, then we’ve done something,” he said. “We can get them to stick with STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] and stay in school.”
Councilman C.J. Small, who represents the community that includes Doyle Park, praised its development and the public-private partnership that conceived it. He noted Doyle’s improvements are only the first phase of two. Eventually it will be outfitted with a gazebo, a splash pad and other amenities, once funding is available.
‘30 years of neglect’
For years, the city’s parks suffered from a lack of capital funding. The funding shortage resulted in about “30 years of neglect,” Matt Capps, senior director of parks and recreation, said. In fact, until recently the department would use what little funding was available to do repairs.
The years have done a number on many of the parks. Although Capps strayed from specifics on various parks, he did mention a few eyesores he saw during an initial evaluation.
An easy example, Capps said, was the old playground at Trinity Gardens Park, which used to be just a couple of swings. The playground itself had been removed and jagged metal piping was sticking up out of the ground.
“It was damaged and we didn’t have the funds to replace it,” Capps said of the play structure. “So they just cut it off and removed it.”
Also during his assessment there were ballfields where the chain-link backstops were in disrepair. The department recently repaired one at Crawford-Murphy Park.
“It’s just not a safe environment when you have those metal objects poking out at you,” Capps said. “It can also be rusting.”
Other issues included park signs with missing or ripped logos and chipping paint on benches, especially in Bienville Square, one of the city’s signature parks, Capps said.
“We can look at Bienville Square and you can see those very nice park benches — and they’re supposed to be a greenish black color and it’s silver because the paint has all worn off,” he said. “I look at those projects and say those are very transformative because, you know, people always notice those details and once those are freshly painted it’s like ‘whoa.’”
When he first took the job, Capps did a survey of all of the city’s 67 parks using the same GIS technology used by the city’s Bloomberg Innovation Team to identify blighted structures.
Funding for parks
All capital projects received more funding with the 2016 budget and the introduction of the city’s capital improvement program (CIP).
The CIP uses money from the three-year extension of a 13 percent sales tax increase — pushed by councilors — earmarked for capital improvement and infrastructure projects. The roughly $30 million per year in CIP funding is split eight ways, with $3 million per year going to the seven council districts and the rest going into the city’s budget for use citywide. Because of CIP, councilors and the city have been able to use more money improving parks.
“Before CIP, we had no monies to do any capital improvement,” Capps said. “We would have to work with public works or public buildings to fix any type of problem that did come up. So, it was just do repair if we could.”
Of the $42 million set aside for CIP over the last two years, a total of $5 million has been used for park improvements, Capps said.
“In 2016, we had to hurry up and get projects let,” he said. “We just kind of looked and went with what we knew were problems. And then we also based it off input we got from the community. So, it could be service request orders, or phone calls to 311.”
While the department is still working on a checklist from 2016, Capps said that by 2018 parks and recreation would be looking at a more programmatic approach, using a master plan paid for with funds from Councilman John Williams’ CIP funds, Capps said.
Funds for the master plan were originally slated to come out of citywide CIP funds taken from each of the seven districts. Councilors, in large part, balked at that and instead prefered to talk to residents themselves.
Councilman Levon Manzie was one of the dissenters. He said a litany of consultants and ideas haven’t provided one “tangible result” for residents.
“We have all of that knowledge, sitting right here picking up dust, that we hope one day to fund,” Manzie said pointing to a shelf full of consultants’ reports and master plans. “You know, the longer I stay here, the more I become weary of consultants because essentially, if you don’t have the resources dedicated and identified to implement what this $300,000 to $400,000 consultant is going to tell you, all you have is a $300,000 to $400,000 booklet.”
While Williams said the city tends to overstudy things, he hopes it can build on a park study rather than waste it.
Councilman Joel Daves said he was generally in support of a master plan for parks.
For Capps, a master plan for parks is not a “pretty picture with someone’s individual landscaping.” Instead, he compared it to the city’s new zoning plan known as the Map for Mobile.
“This is looking at a programmatic approach on what we’re missing and how we need to do it,” he said. “It’s kind of like a strategic plan.”
Capps said a master plan would help create a statistical analysis and include a survey of the community to find out what the needs are. In addition to aligning park amenities to the individual needs of the communities they serve, a master plan would help strengthen the service at a number of the city’s recreation centers.
“We’re really looking to innovate in our centers so that it’s not just “here’s a basketball,’” he said. “We’re going to build some programs and really address our youth.”
Capps said he hopes the plan will align with Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Youth Empowered for Success, or YES program, which is designed to find teens and young adults employment through public internship programs.
While CIP has paid for a chunk of the improvements, many wouldn’t be possible without money from the administration or the Mobile County Commission, Capps said.
The county’s help depends on the size of a particular project. Recently, the two partnered to provide new playground equipment at Medal of Honor Park and new restrooms and a basketball court at Herndon Park. Capps said the county’s contribution was significant.
“For [Herndon], for instance, I believe it was somewhere in the range of $300,000 for a new restroom and the basketball court,” he said. “In Medal of Honor [Park], we’re talking about $500,000. I mean, they’re sizeable projects.”
The Herndon Park basketball court was approved by the council at its regularly scheduled meeting on Jan. 17.
The court will be placed between two tree-lined medians in the parking lot adjacent to Dauphin Street, Capps said. As a result, the city will remove and replace roughly 16 cypress trees that populate the medians.
Capps said the expansive root systems, or knees, of the trees have already begun to tear into the parking lot asphalt. The city doesn’t want to place a brand new basketball court where the asphalt or concrete will be further damaged.
The city will replace the removed trees with either more cypress or a more appropriate tree, either in the parking lot or elsewhere within the park, Capps said.
Architectural Engineering Director Kim Harden said the city had originally considered alternate locations, but each would have been more expensive than the one chosen and would have come with their own set of drainage issues.
The basketball court will encompass about 30 parking spaces from that parking lot and they will not be replaced. Capps explained that most people who use the park drive to the Sage Avenue entrance.
Councilman Fred Richardson, who represents the area where Herndon Park is located, applauded the unanimous vote to bring a basketball court to the roughly 40-year-old park.
“When they built the park they left basketball off,” he said. “We have the plans and we have the money. Hopefully very soon we’ll be building a first-class basketball court at Herndon (Sage) Park.”
In addition to CIP and the county, the Stimpson administration has found funds for some park amenities. For example, the city spent $1.7 million on turf soccer fields at Herndon Park last year.
Capps said soccer fields are among the amenities still needed in city parks. He added that splash pads are also needed at parks west of Interstate 65.
One of the top priorities of Richardson’s CIP allotment was replacing an old playground and adding benches to Trinity Gardens Park. Richardson said the playground wasn’t safe for children because parts of the old structure were sticking out of the ground. Capps agreed and called the replacement a “transformative” project.
The old playground has been replaced with new equipment and benches thanks to CIP funding, Richardson said. The park also has a walking trail. He also would like to add shade structures and a pavilion there eventually.
“I’m very proud of it,” Richardson said. “It hadn’t been done in District 1 for years. This is big.”
Residents also asked for the creation of a new park, called Mill Street Park, Richardson said. With $90,000, Richardson said there are a pavilion, grills and lights there now. He hopes to add sidewalks by the end of the year.
In District 2, Manzie is concerned about maintaining six community centers, ranging from 16 to 70 years old.
“They need to be modernized,” Manzie said. “We’ve tried, with CIP funds, to address those issues … ”
Many of the parks and recreation amenities in District 2 are indoors or around community centers, Manzie said. It’s an issue of updating those facilities to ensure residents can continue to play basketball and football at many of them, like the Thomas Sullivan and Robert Hope centers, as well as Kidd Park.
“You know, we’ve got basketball courts that need to be refinished and updated and we’re working on that,” Manzie said.
As part of the 2016 CIP, many of the centers, including the Harmon Recreation Center and Springhill Recreation Center, will see a number of upgrades. In addition, the tennis courts have been resurfaced at Lyons Park. Additional emphasis has also been placed on Crawford-Murphy Park, Manzie said.
In 2017, Manzie said there’s $1 million set aside for parks in District 2. This includes $100,000 for a playground in Maysville, to $175,000 for lights at Harmon Park, to $150,000 for new basketball courts at Rickarby Park.
In addition to Doyle Park, Small said he’s been very happy with improvements he’s been able to make to Trimmier Park, where B.C. Rain plays both baseball and football. Small said the park doesn’t qualify for Community Development Block Grants because of “million-dollar homes” on Dog River and finding funding for it has been tough. CIP money has also been used in his district to make improvements to the roof at the recreation center at Taylor Park and acquire playground equipment for Fry Park.
With additional funds, Small said he’d like to revitalize Walsh Park, which he said need some work.
In District 4, John Williams touted improvements to the concession stands and field lighting at Mims and Theodore parks. There has been some talk about adding a football fields to Mims so that a Babe Ruth field doesn’t get torn up by football players, but Williams said that’s at least a few years off.
Parks in his district have also seen some sort of field renovation, Williams said.
Parks in District 5 have seen a number of improvements as well, especially Public Safety Memorial Park. Daves said in addition to the lighting being replaced, a dog park and a skate park have been added.
“There have been significant investments in Public Safety Memorial Park,” Daves said. “What happened because of it is a lot more people are going to the park.”
Daves would like to add a pedestrian beacon — a flashing light that warns motorists — to a portion of Airport Boulevard where many park visitors like to cross.
In addition, Daves said he would like to see improvements made to the tennis court at Bailey Park. He said CIP money could be used for a master plan there.
There are also changes coming to Medal of Honor Park, the only park in District 6. Councilwoman Bess Rich said new playground equipment is being installed now. The Playground Express concept — paid for by $475,000 in CIP funds and $510,000 from county funds — mixes several transportation concepts local school children said they wanted to see, Rich said.
Rich will also be hosting a tile fundraiser for a new splash pad there.
Rich also said she’d like to eventually look into expanding the Connie Hudson Senior Center, which can be used by hundreds of people every day.
The council just approved a $900,000 contract to study the best ways to dredge the lake at Langan Park in District 7, Capps said. The dredging could be a massive project costing as much as $9 million. Council President Gina Gregory, who represents the district, said the plan for 2018 is to make small, inexpensive upgrades to Langan Park that “will make it better.”
Among the changes she wants is to add lights to some of the trees and upgrade the park’s pavilions and restrooms.
In addition to parks in each individual district, the city plans to create a Three Mile Creek Greenway management plan. The plan, Capps said, will help the city look at the entire greenway, from Langan Park to the river, in a holistic way.
The greenway will come under the parks and recreation department. Capps said the department is preparing to take the necessary paperwork to the City Council to begin construction of phase one of the greenway in the first section. Section one runs from Pecan Street to the Strickland Youth Center.
“We have those documents ready to go,” Capps said. “We’re just ironing out some of the details with the [Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs] grant we have.”
Phase one, Capps said, will include a 10 inch-wide walking trail.