Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Aubrey Greenfield brings her dog, Clutch, to Historic Bridge Park three or four times a week to walk a two-track trail and swim in the Kalamazoo River.
‘I’ve been coming here since I was 8,” she says during a visit there on Thursday (July 23). “I really like this place.”
A mechanical plumber and pipefitter, Greenfield, who lives in Battle Creek, is among thousands of residents, many of whom have been flocking to Calhoun County parks since mid-March when indoor gyms and recreational facilities were ordered close to help prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
This trend is likely to continue now that both residents and visitors from outside the county have had opportunities to spend time walking or hiking the paths and trails in these parks to stay active during the stay-at-home orders, says Jen Bomba, Community Development Director for Calhoun County. She hopes these outdoor experiences will encourage voters to approve a millage request which appears on the Aug. 4 primary election ballot.
Aubrey Greenfield of Battle Creek brings her dog Clutch often to walk at Historic Bridge Park.
Although there is no tracking data to document this uptick in use, Bomba says, “We look in the parking lots and they are full. That would normally happen on the weekends, but now we’re seeing it daily.
“We’re so fortunate in Calhoun County to have a variety of parks for residents and visitors that offer passive recreation and spaces where families can come together to play. These amenities are being used more than ever because of everything being closed.”
As Robert Byrd sat in his minivan in the parking lot of Bridge Park on Thursday, he recalled the many times he would visit the park as a child growing up in Battle Creek. Byrd, who now makes his home in Florida, says that he brings his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to the park whenever he comes up to spend time with them.
Jen Bomba, Community Development Director for Calhoun County
“It’s a place to relax a little bit and enjoy the scenery. It’s just so peaceful,” Byrd says. “I think the parks are very important because they bring the community together. There are always groups of people out here.”
The ballot proposal seeks the approval of .2 mills for five years to generate an expected $730,000 for maintenance, upkeep, and improvements to parks in Calhoun County. Some would also go to the acquisition and development of parks. If approved, it will cost the owner of a $100,000 home $10 per year.
Half of the funds generated would be used for county parks and half will be set aside for use by municipalities that want to perform similar park property improvements or establish parks.
“The City of Battle Creek has indicated that there are a number of things it could do with this money,” Bomba says. “The city maintains 26 miles of the Linear Park property. Upkeeping and maintaining the asphalt surface is one of the things they see using the money for.
“The nice thing is that for some communities that may not have a park, this gives them the opportunity to get one established or partner with a neighboring community to have a shared park.”
Being the largest municipality, the city of Battle Creek could get up to $140,000, but even smaller jurisdictions like Leroy Township could receive $10,000 if the proposal is passed.
Historic Bridge Park, Kimball Pines Park, and Ott Preserve are the three county parks that would benefit from the funds. There also are plans to connect Bridge Park and Linear Park with the property at the intersection of Raymond Road and Emmet Street that is not currently parkland.
Together, the three county parks occupy 500 acres, a number that will grow with the addition of a park property in Albion Township, Bomba says.
“We are in the process of developing a new park in Albion township. All of our county parks are located in Emmett Township because that’s where the property deed came from,” she says. “We wanted to look for properties on the eastern side eastern side of the county.”
With funds from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the county’s Parks and Recreation Department secured a 65-acre parcel located near M-99 and Condit Road, south of the township limits, that will be developed for use as a trailhead where the Iron Belle and Lake to Lake trails connect.
Robert Byrd, originally from Battle Creek, enjoys the peacefulness of Historic Bridge Park.
“It will be a great space for people to park and connect. It’s considered a trail hub,” Bomba says. “The majority of that acreage will be developed into interpretive paths and trails for the community.”
Current funding for county parks comes through grants and individual and group donations that often are given to finance specific projects. Bomba says the cost of maintenance and upkeep has increased and funding from the DNR and those other sources covers the bare minimum of what needs to be done, leaving next to nothing for ongoing improvements such as bringing Kimball Pines up to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act or the addition of amenities at the different parks.
The County Parks and Recreation Department employs seasonal workers and has the equivalent of 1.5 fulltime staff.
Bomba says funding to pay for additional projects is not easily secured. In addition to the millage request, she says the Parks and Recreation Commission considered making requests to foundations or Friends of the Park groups or seeking the ability to charge a user fee.
“We really don’t have those kinds of amenities that would allow us to charge a user fee like Silver Beach in St. Joseph that has other activities available,” Bomba says.
Parks Commission members agreed to go ahead with the millage request encouraged by the upswing in park usage. They decided .2 mills was a reasonable request and hope that residents will see the positives of maintaining communitywide assets.
“We decided on the millage request to let the voters decide,” Bomba says. “It’s something a lot of communities find that their constituents are willing to pay. We’ve seen success in other communities with getting a parks millage passed.
“There’s no good time, but now’s as good a time as any to make this request.”
In her role to educate residents about the millage request, she highlights the value that outdoor recreation opportunities bring to the overall economic development of the county.
“When a community has a presence with outdoor space recreation and culture it makes it easier to attract new business. A lot of people will look at a community and what it has to offer and then find a job,” Bomba says. “Businesses looking to locate in a community want to know what’s available for their employees and what will keep them there. It really is an economic development tool for the county and the region as a whole.”