By JOHN KLINE
THE GOSHEN NEWS
Members of the Elkhart County Park Board met for the first of three planned public input sessions Wednesday evening to collect suggestions on how best to update the department’s five-year master plan.
According to Elkhart County Parks Director Larry Neff, the parks department has partnered with Mishawaka-based consulting firm SiteScapes Inc. to assist in spearheading the five-year plan rewrite, which is essentially the department’s blueprint for all of its planned programs, maintenance projects and new acquisitions over the next five years.
Leading Wednesday’s meeting was SiteScapes representative Pat Brown, who centered his focus on asking members of the public in attendance to share their thoughts, concerns and wishes in relation to the county parks department. Those ideas and suggestions were then written down on sketch pads to be used during the rewrite process.
“This is just one of several opportunities for the public to weigh in,” Brown said. “We have until Jan. 15 to get a draft in to the (Department of Natural Resources).”
Numerous suggestions for improving the county park system were made during Wednesday’s meeting, one of which involved a request to see more interconnection of bike and walking trails throughout the county, particularly to some of the more outlying areas including Baintertown.
Ox Bow Park, one of the county’s more popular parks, also garnered a significant amount of the focus during Wednesday’s meeting.
Adah Lynn, an Elkhart resident with strong ties to Ox Bow, was particularly concerned about what she sees as a slowly declining presence of park staff at the park and what that might mean for future safety and maintenance issues.
“My main park is Ox Bow,” Lynn said, adding that it is not unusual for her to spend time at the park nearly every day of the week. “I think it’s one of the most wonderful places on earth.”
In referencing the popularity of the park, Lynn said she feels the current number of staff present on most days is not enough to properly monitor the park, adding there are some days she visits the park that she doesn’t see any staff at all.
In response, Brown said that the parks department took a $400,000 budget cut just this year alone, a fact which has forced a significant cut in the department’s part-time and seasonal workforce. Those cuts, he said, have left the department particularly stretched when it comes to maintaining the county’s many parks and open spaces.
As one way to help alleviate the staffing issue, Brown said park department staff rely more and more on park visitors to inform them of any issues that may need addressed, whether it be a dead animal found on a trail or vandalism at a park facility.
Along those lines, a suggestion was made to include contact numbers for park staff at various locations throughout each park to allow for greater communication between staff and visitors.
“Park staff can’t be everywhere all the time,” Brown said. “Park departments rely on visitors. All you have to do is be eyes and ears. If you see it, if you hear it, just call.”
Moving on from Ox Bow, Lynn also raised a concern she had about a rumor involving the parks department possibly creating a new park in the southwest part of the county when the department currently has barely enough staff to handle the parks it already has.
In response, Brown said that while a new park on the county’s southwest side had been included in the department’s previous five-year plan as an area in need of a park presence, there are currently no plans to pursue a new park at this time.
“So it was identified as an area of need,” Brown said, “but I don’t think there is any plan to develop a park at this time.”
That said, Brown added that the county is always on the lookout for new areas that could potentially make good parks in underserved areas, as well as new revenue sources such as grants with which to fund those new projects.
“With this five-year plan, I think it’s still a need,” Brown said, “but until they find the right land and funding, it probably won’t happen any time soon.”
At the conclusion of Wednesday’s meeting, Brown said the public will have two more chances to weigh in on the five-year plan before the board submits its first draft to the DNR this coming January.
Public input on the plan will be accepted at both the Nov. 12 and Dec. 10 park board meetings scheduled 4:30 p.m. Neff said the meetings will most likely take place in the Elkhart County Administration Building, though he urged those planning to attend to check in beforehand in the event of a location change.
In addition to the meetings, the department also plans to post a short questionnaire on its website, www.elkhartcountyparks.org, to collect additional comments and suggestions relating to the five-year plan.
For more information on the status of the five-year plan, contact the Elkhart County Parks Department at 535-6458, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.