Stilwell Community Park moves closer to reality with vote on construction

06/24/2014 4:53 PM

06/24/2014 4:53 PM

After years of anticipation, Stilwell residents may finally be getting their wish. The first shovels of dirt may be turned on the Stilwell Community Park as early as late summer.

The Johnson County Park and Recreation Commission decided last week to begin construction on the 55-acre park near 207th Street and Metcalf Avenue, even though the community organization has not raised money to develop it fully in the near future.

“I think this is a fabulous plan,” said parks commissioner Nancy Wallerstein. “Stilwell needs this park. They don’t have anything up there.”

County Commissioner Steve Klika, liaison to the parks commission, added that the new park is important to the community, which recently approved a long-term strategic plan for growth.

Community organizers are also elated. There are plans to announce the decision via a banner on a backhoe cruising along Stilwell’s July Fourth parade route, said the Rev. Dave Richardson, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Stilwell and one of the park’s most ardent supporters.

The park has been in limbo since 1998, when the county park department bought it. It has remained undeveloped because of an agreement between the county and the non-profit Stilwell Community Organization that the residents of Stilwell would raise a good portion of the money to develop it before construction began.

That meant about $200,000, said Richardson. But fundraising has been slow. Organizers have had trouble getting commitments for those funds because the land has been idle so long that potential donors doubt that anything ever will happen there, he said.

There have been a lot of offers for in-kind donations, Richardson said, “but they said they wouldn’t do so until they saw bulldozers on the ground.” Now that that’s about to happen, he said “we will build on the momentum and excitement of seeing the park actually under construction.”

There is already about $275,000 reserved for the park through the county. Part of that comes from the county capital improvements budget and part from an excise tax that was collected from developers in Aubrey Township. That will pay for a gravel parking lot, entrance sign and mile-long hiking and biking trail.

Residents want considerably more. Richardson said that if enough donors come through, the park may have a paved parking lot, lacrosse and soccer fields, picnic and enclosed shelters and a playground some day. He hopes that future funding will be more likely when potential donors can see that work is already taking place there.

The Stilwell park was one of two developing parks that gained forward momentum this week from the county parks and recreation commission. The other, also near Stilwell, got an official name for its planned opening in January.

Commissioners dubbed a 60-acre tract of land near 175th Street and Mission Road Camp Branch Glade. That is a section of a 300-acre area that will be called Camp Branch Park.

The park is the result of a real estate exchange between the parks department and the Blue Valley School District. It is scheduled to be open by January.

Developing parks — and finding the money to run them once they’re open — has long been an issue that parks officials have struggled with.

Jill Geller, who recently succeeded Mike Meadors as executive director of the park department, lists it as one of her top goals, along with protecting the county’s natural resources and increasing public awareness and support for the park system.

The county has about 4,000 acres of undeveloped parkland, about half of which is in Big Bull Creek area near Edgerton. The county bought the park in 1998 with plans of opening it in 10 years. But because of the recession and concurrent cutbacks in county funds, that has not happened, said Geller.

Two other properties also are on the undeveloped list. The Cedar Niles area near Olathe, west of Kansas Highway 7 between 119th and 135th streets, is about 1,000 acres and another 460 acres with a lake near De Soto also are undeveloped.

Developing the land into park space is not as simple as just building some shelters and paving a trail or two, Geller said. Once a park opens, it requires staff to maintain and police it, and how to meet that ongoing expense is a topic frequently discussed this year between the parks commission and county commissioners.

The parks department has taken the first step by putting money in its budget for master plans for those areas, Geller said. But opening them and running them will take a bigger commitment, she said.

The parks department has its own dedicated mill levy, which was not increased in the proposed budget for 2015.

“Something will have to happen in the way of funding for us to meet the needs and open the parks the public wants,” Geller said. “We’re not in a position to open parks with funding as it is.”

The Big Bull Ceek area has yet another impending issue to be dealt with. Edgerton Quarry has applied for a conditional use permit for an asphalt and concrete plant near enough to the park and Mildale Farms, an event center, that commissioners are concerned about odor and dust. That permit is working its way through the planning department and will eventually arrive at the county commission’s doorstep.

That’s all a pretty big plateful for Geller, who took over the top parks administrative post in April. Geller was first hired as a recreation coordinator at the parks department in 1980. Most recently, she was the superintendent of recreation for the district.

As the parks department celebrates its 60th year next year, Geller said some aging structures at existing parks will need to be addressed. She also hopes to increase public awareness of the park system and its impact on physical and mental fitness.

“It all revolves around continuing to provide great services to taxpayers and expand upon them,” she said.

“For people who don’t utilize the services, I would love for them to get out here, even just for golf or Theater in the Park.”

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