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A whole new ballgame: City working with youth sports organizers to update Freedom Park plan

Development in Freedom Park in 2015 will focus on more general infrastructure, such as restroom facilities, parking lots and an additional access road, rather than on specific sports-related playing space. (City of New Richmond image)

The New Richmond Park Board invited organizers of local youth sports groups to its Dec. 3 meeting to discuss progress made at developing athletic facilities at Freedom Park over the years. The groups’ representatives indicated that the city’s plan for the park property on the city’s north side no longer suits the needs and wants of the organizations. They also expressed frustration over what they view as lack of progress on park improvements over the years despite their collective membership contributing tens of thousands of dollars.

History

Dave Mehls, manager of New Richmond Parks, delivered a detailed presentation during the board meeting that explained the history of Freedom Park back to 2001 when the city purchased 29.27 acres along Hatfield Lake in the airport’s approach zone for less than $235,000. In 2004-05, the city purchased an additional 75.67 acres for about $2.5 million with the Town of Richmond kicking in $50,000.

In 2005, representatives from local youth baseball, football, softball and soccer organizations began meeting and formed the New Richmond Area Youth Sports Association (NRAYSA). That group met with the city, towns, county, school district and other potential user groups to form a master plan for what was then called Hatfield Regional Park.

In 2007, some of the land was cleared of vegetation and graded level. An access road was constructed along with a walking trail, a parking lot and two soccer fields. A concession and storage building was constructed and fencing was added in 2008 and 2009 along with two more soccer fields.

In 2010, two picnic pavilions were added along with electrical infrastructure, and in 2011 more grading and excavation work took place resulting in leveling areas for volleyball courts, future football fields and a future parking lot.

In 2012, the park was renamed as Freedom Park to honor local veterans from VFW Post 10818.

In 2013 and 2014, the city installed irrigation systems for the four soccer fields.

New Richmond Public Works Director Jeremiah Wendt, who was hired by the city just over a year ago, said the presentation helped him better understand the project and the relationship between the city and the NRAYSA.

“It was really interesting to see the progress that’s been made,” Wendt said. “When you go up there now, it seems like we’re just kind of getting started with this. To look back and see all the stuff that’s already been done, I thought was pretty remarkable.”

Wendt said of the $3.7 million already invested in the park, $2.6 million of it was needed to simply acquire the property.

“I thought the way we have paid for things I thought was interesting,” Wendt said. “It has changed over the years from early on in the project when the city really bought into this with about $1.5 million for the land purchase — out of taxpayer funds — and how things have changed over the years. Now, we’re trying to tap every different resource that we can to get money for it, because the city doesn’t really have the appetite anymore for that kind of big investment.”

NRAYSA frustration

During the Dec. 3 meeting, several NRAYSA organizers in attendance expressed frustration with how little progress has been made on the athletic facilities planned at the park after nearly a decade has passed since developing the master plan.

One organizer noted that based on the $6 million to $7 million still needed to complete the park’s plan, the current pace of investing about $150,000 per year would take more than 40 years to complete.

Mike Weiss, president of the New Richmond Baseball Club, told the Park Board that the bulk of the funds to complete the park would have to come from taxpayers.

“The amount of money that’s required for this project is not going to come from a pancake breakfast. It’s not going to come from a $1,000 grant from Walmart. It’s not even going to come from a million dollars worth of grading from the National Guard. It’s going to have to come from the taxpayers,” Weiss said.

Weiss also told the board that the master plan in place nearly a decade ago is in desperate need of an update.

“This plan was put together many, many years ago, and the needs and functionality of that plan are now gone,” Weiss said. “We need to have a new plan when talking about things like fieldhouses for basketball courts — because we’re short on those — volleyball courts and ice arenas. Why wouldn’t we consider putting [artificial] turf on all the fields? That is what other communities are doing with their parks right now. We’re working off of a plan that’s too old.”

Weiss said he expected every youth sports organization to continue contributing funds toward the park updates, but only as long as there is a good plan in place.

Alderman Jim Zajkowski, who also serves on the Park Board, told the organizers that the city has many competing interests when it comes to taxpayer funds, including high-priorities such as police and fire services, and local streets. He recommended that the groups come together to organize an effort to lobby neighboring municipalities to contribute to park improvement costs, because each sport draws participants from the surrounding area and a regional park would benefit those residents.

“If the townships would contribute, if the county would contribute, just like Homestead Parklands on Perch Lake, why can’t this be a regional park?” Zajkowski said. “The one thing is that the people have to speak up. If you live in the township, you have to go to your town board and say ‘we want to see this get done.’ The city can’t go to the town boards and say, ‘give us money.’ The people who live there have to go to their town boards and tell them that they are willing to have their taxes go up to see this happen.”

Zajkowski also floated the idea that if the sports groups felt very strongly about the park, they could petition each municipality, including the city, and force a referendum for the necessary funds.

Moving forward

Wendt said he would be meeting with each of the sports groups to identify their lists of needs and wants before assembling a new plan.

“If we’re going to build this park, we need a plan so we can make it something that’s going to be useful,” Wendt said. “On the one hand, yes, it’s a big investment. It’s bigger than the city can make on its own. But on the other hand, you have the sports clubs saying that it’s not big enough. It costs too much, but the facilities aren’t going to be enough for what we need now. Those two things are in balance. Everybody wants more fields and facilities, but that costs more.”

Wendt said Freedom Park improvements planned for 2015 are spurred by the arrival of the the Moving Wall, a traveling half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, scheduled for September. Those general, non-sports improvements will include a new access road to County Road CC, additional parking and semi-permanent restroom facilities.

Beyond that, Wendt faces the challenge of whittling wishlists from sports groups into realistic priorities for the city to tackle.

“Getting together with them and prioritizing the things that will be most used, bring the most people to Freedom Park and serve the most people, and prioritizing from there,” Wendt said. “Even just laying it out on paper, we’re limited to the space we’ve got there. If we want 10 football fields and 10 baseball fields, it’s just not going to fit on the space. Also, funding is a big limiting factor.”

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FUNDING BREAKDOWN

Since 2001, millions have been invested in the property now known as Freedom Park. Those investments have come from the following sources

(dollar figures are rounded):

City of New Richmond: $1.79 million

Grants: $1.09 million

Park Trust Fund: $566,500

Donations: $553,300

New Richmond Area Youth Sports Association: $138,000

Impact Fees: $34,900

Farm Lease: $26,900

Micheal Foley
Micheal Foley worked at RiverTown Multimedia from July 2013 to June 2015 as editor at the New Richmond News. 
(715) 243-7767 x241
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