A proposal to accelerate Rochester park improvements met with mixed support Monday.
While the city’s Park Board was united in supporting a proposal to use funds from a referendum to borrow $15 million for park and recreation system improvements, the majority of the Rochester City Council said a slower pace is needed.
“I still go back to the language in the referendum,” council member Patrick Keane said of the voter-approved ballot question in November. “It had things in there like conservation of trees and wooded areas, improve access to existing parks and recreational facilities for kids and people with disabilities, improve park safety.
“Again, when I look at the list and talk about the master plans at the bigger parks, certainly they are important and they do reflect the community, but I’m trying to go back to this referendum and the fact is this is a phenomenal thing that our community voted over 60 percent in favor of it, but again we use words there that I think we are losing as we go forward.”
Keane and other council members referred to a list outlining a potential use of the $15 million which would be paid off with half of the $2 million in property taxes produced by the referendum each year.
The list included $7 million in upgrades at Soldiers Field Park and $4 million at Silver Lake Park, as well as $1.2 million at Eastwood Golf Course. Other funding would include Rec Center locker room improvements and a variety of park upgrades.
The second half of the referendum funding would be used on an annual basis to make a variety of improvements.
Park and Recreation Director Paul Widman said the list was only a starting point for discussion, and many of the proposed projects included elements highlighted in the question put in front of voters last year, such as conservation, accessibility and safety.
“Once we put it on paper, it felt like maybe it was carved in stone,” he said of the list of potential projects. “That was not the intent at all, so we are very flexible on that.”
Not all council members were hesitant when asked about borrowing for park projects. Shaun Palmer and Molly Dennis said they support moving forward but also suggested potential tweaks to the list.
“We need to make things happen,” Dennis said.
Widman said department staff will work with Park Board members during the next two to three months to better define a list of projects that could be funded and how they relate to the goals presented to voters.
He also said proposals will be guided by council and park board discussion of a recent survey, which highlighted key priorities for residents.
With 732 of 5,500 randomly sampled households responding, the participants said community and regional parks, paved trails, natural and open space, neighborhood parks and Quarry Hill Nature Center were the top five amenities they used.
Mike Nigbur, the city’s parks and forestry division head, said the results largely reflect priorities established in the city’s 2016 parks system plan, but he also acknowledged some room for addressing changes in community expectations.
“We think there is value in these specific projects,” he said, pointing to the list that includes expanding the Soldiers Field pool and creating an alternate water feature in Silver Lake Park.
At the same time, he said there’s a willingness to adjust the list to find common ground with city council and park board priorities.
Park Board President Linnea Archer said she’s hopeful the common ground can be reached and work can start on park improvements as early as next year.
“I’d like to give voters tangible things that they can see,” she said, noting the alternative is to roll out smaller projects on a year-to-year basis.