Published: May 25, 2013
Roger Bentley cannot recall the number of times over the past 15 years he's watched Colorado Springs park maintenance crews fill the cracks in the tennis courts at Memorial Park.
"They would fill the cracks in the spring and we'd play for a few months and then - poof - the cracks were back," he said.
In recent years, the crews didn't come at all, he said.
Bentley nearly fell out of his chair at a recent Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting when parks officials announced they planned to spend $1 million to replace his beloved tennis courts.
"In a euphoric mode, I rose up, I nearly levitated," said Bentley, who has played tennis in city leagues and clubs at the Memorial Park Tennis Complex since 1972. These days, he joins his buddies to play several times a week in spring and summer months.
Replacing the tennis courts is among $5.9 million in proposed parks projects expected to be presented to City Council in June.
If approved, park users also will have three new handball courts at Memorial Park, play year-around on artificial turf at Skyview Sports Complex, and see 80 acres of blue grass replaced with wild, native grass - a move expected to save 60 percent on watering costs on those areas. Children who play in city parks will have new playground equipment and rubberized landing surfaces and hikers will feel more secure on sturdy new trail bridges.
"Putting $5.9 million out there will be exciting," said Karen Palus, Colorado Springs parks director.
Colorado Springs' 9,000 acres of city parks have been in the local and national spotlight since 2010 when the parks' budget got slashed and parks went without water and maintenance. Those dark years seemed to have exponentially aged the parks, said Kurt Schroeder, park operations and development manager. He keeps a list of parks' needs that now totals $180 million.
"It all boils down to an aging infrastructure," he said.
This year the parks got some relief. In April, voters approved changes to the Trails, Open Space and Parks ordinance to allow a portion of the money to be spent on park maintenance. Previously the TOPS money - 1/10 of 1 percent of the 7.6 percent sales tax - only could be spent on buying and developing new park lands. In the last couple of years, the city didn't spend the TOPS money to buy new parks because it couldn't afford the parks it had, Schroeder said.
"Voters sent a really important message that they really care about the parks," Palus said. "They want them well maintained and well taken care of and rightly so."
Palus will recommend spending $4.2 million from the TOPS fund for park maintenance, artificial turf fields at Skyview Sports Complex, playground replacement, irrigation renovation and tennis court replacement.
She also will recommend spending $1.4 million from the Conservation Trust Fund, money from the Colorado Lottery, for turf replacement and playground equipment; and $250,000 from the Park Land Dedication Ordinance, money from developer fees, for three new handball courts in Memorial Park. Replacing the grass with artificial turf at three ball fields in Skyview Sports Complex could cut back the water bill by $50,000 a year at those fields and cost less to maintain each year, Schroeder said.
"You won't have to worry about holes or divots - no mowing, no fertilizing," Schroeder said.
Equally important, he said, is getting more use out of the fields.
"We could move some uses out there and take pressure off some of the other fields. Right now, we don't have the luxury of resting fields.
Susan Davies, Trails and Open Space Coalition executive director, said watching the parks deteriorate has been sad. Volunteers have cleaned up the parks they best they could, she said.
"But there are some things when you really need paid staff with power tools to get things done," she said. "It's a safety issue - it's ridiculous, those tennis courts.
Prior to the 2008 economic downturn, parks received what most people considered their fair share of the general support pie, she said. Then, last year when there was hope, $175,000 set aside for tennis court maintenance fell victim in budget wrangling between the City Council and the Mayor. And tennis enthusiasts watched grass grow up throught the cracks in the court.
The coalition intends to closely watch the 2014 budget process and argue that no further cuts be made to the parks budget, Davies said. Now, parks get about $7 per $100 distribution from the general fund.
"We would like to see them add back some of the maintenance personnel," Davies said. "As we continue to tout this as a place we want to draw tourists, we need more folks."
Gary Feffer, a Colorado Springs commercial real estate broker and member of the parks advisory board, said there is a direct connection between the health of the city's parks and economic development.
"Whether it's the Business Alliance or Mayor Bach or Gary Feffer as a commercial real estate broker, we are marketing a product and the thing we are marketing together is our city," he said. "If the No.1 goal is jobs - parks has a direct correlation to new jobs."
Nice looking parks and neatly groomed street medians are things visiting company scouts and executives notice, he said. In 2010, when the city cutback on park watering and other park services it was visible, Feffer said.
When parks' budget went from $8 per $100 of general fund money down to $2 in 2001, it was visible, Feffer said.
"We lost 100 trees - trees that our founder General Palmer planted for all of us," he said. "We let them die. Come on. You can't do that."
The $5.9 million parks proposal is a good start toward the long list of parks needs, he said. But he worries it is not enough.
"I've got news for you, communities we compete with, they all have the infrastructure and tax base to address these issues."