PORTSMOUTH – The City of Portsmouth has a plethora of parks. From newer parks such as the Skate Park and Spock Memorial Dog Park, to older parks such as Tracy, Bannon, Mound, York, Alexandria Point, the Cyndee Secret Park in Sciotoville, and even the Spartan Stadium – Branch Rickey Sports Complex, there are a number of recreational opportunities across city limits. But not all of them are in the best condition according to City Engineer Nathan Prosch.
“We have a lot of parks and we don’t have a lot of population,” said Prosch at the City Manager’s Agenda meeting on Monday evening. “Without the population, we don’t have the income to pay for the proper maintenance for our parks.”
Prosch then suggested a radical new idea – using the city’s current resources to focus on a single park and leasing out the existing parks to different groups and organizations.
“My idea is to consolidate the parks we have into a single park the city would maintain,” explained Prosch. “We would have one in town and one in Sciotoville. And then we would relinquish the existing parks to other interested parties.”
Prosch suggested entering into long term lease agreements for a dollar per year with interested groups.
“Whatever party wants the lease, they would be responsible for maintenance and improvements. That would free up city workers to maintain a single park.”
The problem with park maintenance extends beyond Portsmouth population shrinkage from over 40,000 in the 1940s to approximately 18,000 today. As Prosch explained, former City Manager Derek Allen did away with the ground and maintenance crew whose job was to care for the City’s parks several years ago.
“That department had five full time employees with five to six seasonal workers,” said Prosch. “Now, the street maintenance crew carries those responsibilities…They are supposed to be maintaining streets. Now we have them cutting grass in the summer which leaves our roads deteriorating.”
The City Engineer then detailed the potential new park project, which would be built next to Spartan Stadium in the lot the city owns to the West. The new park could feature a small playground for small children, a large playground for older children, two tennis courts, two pickleball courts, sand volleyball, a carousel, mini golf, a track, and more.
“You’d still have the entire west half of the lot to grow. And there is plenty of parking and space,” said Prosch.
City Council voiced a number of concerns about the proposal. Third Ward Councilman Andy Cole voiced concerns over costs and the potential for parks to close due to the new policy.
“I love the idea of the local neighborhood park,” said Cole. “We’ve lost a lot of that over time…so this (proposal) is a double edged sword for me. I would feel a big loss if we lost our neighborhood parks. But on the other side, I get it. We do have to contend with maintenance costs.”
“And wouldn’t it be better to avoid the cost of building something new at the stadium and just hire more workers for maintenance of our existing parks?”
Prosch explained that hiring a single city worker for ground maintenance costs the city approximately $60,000 per year. A crew of five workers costs $300,000 per year.
“In 30 years, we’d be spending $9 million on a crew of maintenance workers,” said Prosch. “Or, we could build a park for $2 million and use the crews we have now to maintain it…When my family goes to parks in other cities, we find that these cities have one good, keynote park. Ashland has Central Park. Chillicothe and Huntington both have one good park. I was thinking that we could also have one good park and shovel our funds and resources there to make it better year after year. All our grant applications would be limited to one or two parks.”
“I know this is a difficult decision. But the amount of parks we have are not sustainable.”
First Ward Councilman and Mayor Sean Dunne suggested conducting research and organizing a pilot program to see if the model would work.
“Let’s look at what other cities have done. If we are spread this thin, we need to look at other solutions,” said Dunne. “For now, we could take one park. Let’s say Alexandria Point. Sue Burke and her crew have already been putting so many hours in there. Let’s try a pilot program. Let’s try one park and see if its something that could be successful. Let’s see how it works and how it doesn’t work. That will be the test whether a community group or organization such as the hospital or university would be interested.”
The City Engineer and City Council agreed to look into the proposal and other solutions before the next meeting, which will be held on Monday, October 10th at 6PM.