If there’s one takeaway from the open houses held last week to discuss county parks, it’s that the park system is many things to many people, says Jill Geller, executive director of the county’s park and recreation department.
“There has not been a single topic that stood out,” said Geller as the second day of public meetings on the future of parkland and programs wound down. But after a second’s consideration, she added, “If there were I’d say it would be people’s appreciation of the trails.”
Take the Trail Nerds, for instance. Three from that group showed up at the Antioch Library meeting to advocate more of the rugged unpaved trails they prefer for long-distance running. And to ask for more trail access at night. County parks are usually closed after dark.
“Some of the best trail running is with a headlamp at night,” said Carl Cleveland, an Overland Park chiropractor. Cleveland, who recently completed a 135-mile run in Death Valley, refers to marathons as “shorter distances.” He said his dream is for all the county’s trails to be connected, perhaps even with the Katy Trail or westward. “If you could get the trails to go across Kansas, people would run it,” he said.
Kim Buenger of Olathe had a similar vision, although she prefers biking. Buenger recently finished a 70-mile ride on connected trails in Iowa and hopes Johnson County can eventually get more paved bike trails connected. “If you have a road bike you can go on training rides for a bunch of miles,” she said. Buenger stopped in briefly to talk with officials at the Gardner open house.
Not everyone was trail oriented, though. At the Antioch Library open house, Elaine Giessel of Overland Park was concerned that county officials do everything they can to listen to and make parks accessible to lower-income residents.
“They’re people who really need this green space,” she said. “And of course there’s no public transit to get to the parks.”
Giessel, who works part-time as a naturalist at Ernie Miller Nature Park, also said she would like to see a good balance between sports and other facilities and less structured, natural space in the parks.
Barbara Adamson of Lenexa stopped to check out the Antioch meeting for the League of Women Voters. She said she’s most concerned about how water is used at the parks and how development affects it.
Meanwhile, Judy Rainwater of Shawnee said she enjoys taking her grandchildren to the nature center at Ernie Miller. She said she hopes the county will keep improving and expanding its park and recreation offerings.
The four meetings around the county were lightly attended — about a dozen or fewer at each event, although Antioch drew 22. People who wandered in could look at posters of various parks and see a slide show about the system, talk with park officials and consultants and fill out a form or paste sticky notes on maps about parks’ strengths and weaknesses.
Suggestions ran the gamut from maintaining and improving water quality in the ponds and fishing lakes to extending the boat rental season at Shawnee Mission Park to creating a future bike park with an area for cyclo-cross.
Some visitors were curious about the county’s plans for undeveloped park land, which is a perennial campaign issue. But the subject didn’t draw much criticism at the meetings, Geller said.
Four major park areas — Cedar Niles, Rieke Lake, Camp Branch and Big Bull Creek — have remained undeveloped for years as the county struggles with how to find funding to run them.
The open houses are a beginning to a new strategic plan that county park officials hope to have completed by next summer. The county is working with consultant SWT Design of St. Louis and Indigo Design of De Soto on a plan that will look into the next 15 years of park offerings. The effort involves the open houses plus workshops, meetings with cities and schools and a survey to be conducted next month.
The last time the park department did such a plan was the Master Action Plan of 2001, otherwise known as MAP 2020.