Dover Park debate holds up master plan for recreation


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A sharp wind nipped at noses and ears Friday and the playground equipment at Dover Park sat idle. (Delaware State News/K.I. White)

DOVER — Before the city decided to demolish the Dover Park Recreation Center in 2014 it had intentions of providing recreational activities for the east side of Dover.

But that still hasn’t happened and council continues to debate what the recreational needs are for those residents east of U.S. 13.

“We didn’t want to see the building demolished until we knew that a new facility was going to take its place,” Council President Timothy Slavin said last week.

“We didn’t want to end up where we are today with people telling us what they need and not providing it for them, but here we are facing those same problems we tried to avoid.”

In the bull’s-eye of city’s recreation-needs debate is Dover Park, located east of U.S. 13 off White Oak Road. The park’s wooded 28.2 acres include softball fields, a playground, pavilions, basketball courts, tennis courts, disc golf and more.

What it doesn’t have is a recreation center. The center demolished two years ago had been built in the 1970s and was considered obsolete.

“A decision was made that before the building was demolished that another facility would be there, or something would replace it, but that has yet to happen,” Mayor Robin Christiansen said.

“We definitely need something over there,” Mr. Slavin said. “We have parks out there and we need to try to find a way to utilize those parks or add different recreational programs.

“I’m not just thinking about the youth,” he said. “I’m thinking about everyone, like senior citizens, who may want to have a nice place to walk and want different activities. “

The mayor’s pitch

During last month’s Parks, Recreation and Community Enhancement Committee meeting Mayor Christiansen told members that for the last year or so constituents and some civic associations on the city’s east side had told him they need a recreation facility.

He also said that without a center in east Dover, the city often must contract with Towne Point Elementary to compensate. Furthermore, the city has an obligation, he said, to the residents on the east side of U.S. 13.

Mayor Christiansen has an idea on where to get money to pay for a replacement center.

He said he applied to Attorney General Matt Denn for a $1.5 million grant to come from the $29 million that remains from mortgage-related settlements with Bank of America and Citigroup. The money is held by the attorney general’s office.

“I realize we won’t have a new facility anytime soon, but I don’t see anything wrong with starting the discussion as to what is needed on that side of the city,” Mayor Christiansen said.

“I wrote a letter to Attorney General Denn that when he considers releasing those funds that we be considered for $1.5 million.

Attorney General Denn previously has proposed using settlement money to fight crime and benefit communities.

“I figured that would be a great place to seek money, so if we were to build a facility it wouldn’t be a burden on the taxpayers,” he added.

Attorney General spokesman Carl Kanefsky said Thursday evening the office had yet to receive the letter.

Mayor Christiansen envisions a multipurpose venue. It could be a facility that would allow the city to revive the Police Athletic League program, a program that he said had been successful in the Dover community in the past.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Educational Community Center also could be located there so it could fulfill its mission of mentoring and tutoring at-risk students and youths, he said, along with the Hot Shots! Basketball Program.

That program, previously was run by former Councilwoman Beverly Williams through Aid in Dover Inc. and serves about 500 children, the mayor said.

Another view

Over in the city’s Parks and Recreation department, director Ann Marie Townshend believes Mayor Christiansen is moving too fast.

“I don’t think the city is in a position to build a new facility until the costs are laid out and determined,” Ms. Townshend said.

“I think a recreation center would be much more than the $1.5 million that the city might receive from the attorney general.”

Mayor Christiansen agreed.

“I know that $1.5 million won’t be nearly enough to build a facility, but I think it would be a good start to have set aside if we do start planning a facility for the future,” he said.

Ms. Townshend, who also is director of Dover Planning and Inspections, said the city should use the results from a recreation-needs assessment completed in 2015, while gathering other information to get a clear understanding as to what residents want.

She also questioned what programs would be held in the proposed center. Programs held at the old center suffered from low participation, she said.

The number began to dwindle 15 years ago when the Boys and Girls Club opened its Manchester Square location, she said.

Numbers dropped more when the Pitts Center opened in 2008 in Schutte Park, in west Dover on Electric Avenue.

The city planned on using the recreational-needs assessment to hammer out a master plan for future development of Dover’s parks and recreation programs. But of Dover’s estimated population of 37,540, only 506 people responded to the assessment.

Of those taking the survey, 42 percent indicated they use Dover Park. More than 56 percent of those 239 respondents said they visited the park to walk or jog.

They also cited league activities and using the playground.

However, one possibility proposed for Dover Park is a splash park, which 78 people said they wanted.

That plan has been in the works since 2013 after the parks and recreation committee approved a recommendation to see where people would want the park and earmarked $380,000 for a splash park.

Why a splash park?

The city determined the need for water recreation after the North Dover Athletic Pool was removed and swimming became restricted at Silver Lake. A splash park typically has pads with multiple spray jets and above-ground spray features.

Typically, a splash park doesn’t carry the costs and liabilities associated with operating a public pool, making it an attractive alternative to swimming pools in urban areas.

But don’t get out your swimsuits yet.

Mayor Christiansen recommended the money set aside for the splash park should be expended for the construction of a new multi-purpose, year-round recreation center. A splash park, he said, only could be used for a few months during the year.

“I think it will be better if we used that money towards a future facility,” Mayor Christiansen said. “It’s a facility that will be open year round and I think we will get more bang for our buck if we focused on that rather than splash park that we can only use for a few months.”

Ms. Townshend said the splash pad was budgeted in the Capital Improvement Plan with the idea the city would pay half and the state would match these funds with Delaware Land and Water Conservation Trust Fund money.

She said the money earmarked for the splash park is only an estimate of how much the project will cost.

“There isn’t physically $380,000 in a fund just for the splash park,” Ms. Townshend said.

“That money isn’t lying around it’s only an estimate of the project, so if we were to build it gives us an idea of how much it will cost.”

Ms. Townshend wants to continue to prioritize the city’s capital investments moving forward.

“Our park land reserve fund has $324,000,” she said. “$33,000 is allocated to a playground project that goes in the ground this year. $180,000 will be used for improvements for Dover Park.

“My main concern is allocating funding for a project that we don’t know where funding is coming from,” she said.

Moving forward

The city’s assessment isn’t the only survey that’s been taken over the years.

The Social Action Commission’s Task Force of Mount Zion A.M.E. Church on Queen Street conducted its own survey of more than 300 residents to see what they would like to see replace the former Dover Parks Recreation Building.

It was submitted to city council in January 2014.

The majority of 300 residents who participated in the Mount Zion task force’s survey agreed the old rec center at Dover Park needed to come down, with 246 in favor of its demolition.

Almost as many of 234, wanted it replaced by a new modern building.

Councilmen Fred Neil and Scott Cole, who represent the Third District which includes Dover Park, said the idea for a new facility is a great idea, but questioned where the funding will come from.

“I don’t want to promise a new facility and we can’t deliver it,” Mr. Neil said. “There aren’t any plans as to how we will be able to pay for the facility. Funding for the building is the most important part.”

Participants of the Mount Zion survey said they would like to see different programs such as family counseling, alcohol, drug and gang preventions and job seeking tips.

Mr. Cole said it’s up to council to figure out what residents want in the city.

“When everyone on council has their town meetings they are listening to what people want,” Mr. Cole said, referring to meetings many councilmen hold with their constituents.

“I think we need to take all of the data that we have and figure out what’s best. We need to figure out where our at-risk youth are at and have programs that will be beneficial to them.”

Mr. Cole also said that perhaps instead of building a new facility the city should partner with other programs to meet the needs of residents.

“We can look at other places like PAL programs and reach out to school and churches to see if we can work with them to offer some locations for different recreational programs,” Mr. Cole said.

“Maybe that can help a little with having recreational activities that we were missing before.”

Mayor Christiansen said the results gathered from the city’s needs assessment and the Social Action Commission’s survey were a great starting point, but it will continue to be a long process to determine what’s needed.

Still, now is the time, he said, for discussion, gathering information and determining what’s best for Dover residents.

“I think we can use that to come up with a game plan,” Mayor Christiansen said. “It’s a growing city and we need something that will help the youth get off of the streets.”

As for his proposed center in Dover Park?

Even if it’s considered, he said, “I probably won’t be around to see it built.”

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