By Dale Martin
May 13, 2022
“Mr. Mikelson, [interim Park & Rec Director], presented a concept for discussion and consideration. Mr. Mikelson nor any other City staff are wedded to the concept: if the community desires to continue the discussion, staff is prepared to do so; if the community discards the concept, staff moves on.”
Let me take this opportunity to provide more context to the Central Park discussion that took place Tuesday evening. (To read Wes Wolffe’s report on the Tuesday meeting, click here.) First and foremost, as Mr. Mikelson stated in his introductory remarks, the reconfiguration of Central Park was presented solely as an idea, conceived due to a variety of circumstances, most notably policy, finances, and property.
The first circumstance is the City’s Parks and Recreation Master Plan. This plan was created following public engagement efforts in early 2015 and subsequently adopted unanimously by the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board and the City Commission (Oct 2015). Until formally revised by the City Commission, this is the policy document for Parks and Recreation efforts. The document is available on the City’s website on the Parks and Recreation page.
Section Four (Long-Range Parks and Recreation Vision, p. 53) states: “The existing Buccaneer Field Complex would be moved to the expanded Fernandina Sports Complex. Central Park would continue to host pick-up games, practice, and recreational leagues, while the Sports Complex would host competitive games and tournaments. A lighted sports complex is not an appropriate use for the City’s a central urban park; it monopolizes over 2/3 of the park land for a single, specialized use; and the outfield fences, lights, maintenance building, parking, and noise are not compatible with adjacent residential uses. The proposed vision would increase park use by both visitors and residents; increase adjacent property values; help stabilize the surrounding neighborhood, and provide a true ‘Signature Park’ for the City.”
It is the City staff’s professional responsibility to implement and support City Commission policy, whether staff personally supports those policies. That is the foundation of professional City staff and effective local government. After serving this community for over six years, I do personally disagree with some of the visions and recommendations of the Master Plan, but until that plan is revised or revoked, it is the guiding policy document.
The current Parks and Recreation Advisory Board has also recognized flaws or desired changes in the 2015 Master Plan. Last year, the Board embarked on a new extensive outreach to solicit feedback regarding the City’s Parks and Recreation facilities and programs. This survey effort (web-based, so available to anyone everywhere with an internet connection) was widely promoted through public announcements at City Commission and Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee meetings, through notices in local newspapers, and online through several social media sites. Approximately one thousand surveys were completed. Based upon the survey results, the Advisory Committee has prepared an Assessment and Action Plan. Further action on the Assessment and Action Plan is pending on the appointment of a Parks and Recreation Director (who will be provided the opportunity to offer professional insight and experience before the Assessment and Action Plan is presented to the City Commission for consideration).
Finances are the second circumstance. As has been more frequently noted, the City has not historically maintained its facilities. Those deferred maintenance costs are becoming a significant burden. The ability to allocated additional funding for maintenance has also been historically constrained by the desire to reduce taxes. For at least the past two years, the proposed budget included funding for new playground equipment and new fencing at Central Park. Following political calls to implement the “rollback rate” and not have a tax increase, those projects were eliminated from consideration.
I expect this year will be no different. The City has typically allocated approximately $3 million for capital projects. Consider what is already being proposed for next year’s budget: $1.5 million for a new aerial fire truck, $1 million for street/sidewalk maintenance, $2 million for recreational facility maintenance, $300,000 for beach improvements. Without additional revenues, not all of those projects, let alone Central Park improvements, will be funded.
Mr. Mikelson recognized that the City’s collection of impact fees represented an untapped source of revenue to redevelop those facilities that will likely otherwise be relegated to piecemeal replacement. The impact fees must be spent on new capital facilities, not on replacement projects (as definitively stated by the City Attorney).
Those two circumstances led to the concept of relocating the baseball fields to the Ybor Alvarez Sports Complex: reconfiguring the fields currently utilized for adult softball into youth baseball fields. Additional parking could be adding. Other supporting facilities could be constructed. Drainage could be improved. Significant investment could be made for this new facility.
To clarify, the Ybor Alvarez property is owned by the City, but it is, in general, regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration. Under its current disposition, the softball and soccer fields are at risk to additional Airport development, which cannot likely be denied. The City Commissioners are astutely aware of the potential loss of those facilities and are developing options on how to secure the current use of that property for sports activities for years to come. As with nearly everything else, it comes down to money.
Finally, the anonymous donor is, in fact, quite real, with an extensive history of significant contributions to area agencies and programs. City staff had meetings with the donor to ensure the donor’s intent and desires were fulfilled. I have not had additional conversation with the donor following Tuesday’s meeting, so the status of the original donation is unknown.
To recap: Mr. Mikelson presented a concept for discussion and consideration. Mr. Mikelson nor any other City staff are wedded to the concept: if the community desires to continue the discussion, staff is prepared to do so; if the community discards the concept, staff moves on. I will always encourage City staff to seek innovative solutions to the challenges of their department.
Thank you for your comments.