A matter of priorities: Board cautious about park expansion

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Dave Bretl | July 21, 2014

I was about four minutes into my latest speech when I realized I had started on page two of my script, rather than the first, confusing my audience and cutting a good four minutes off of my presentation.

The purpose of my speech was to dedicate the county's newest park, White River County Park in the town of Lyons. The reason for my gaffe was that I intended to introduce county board members in attendance at the event. I learned a long time ago not to entrust that task to my memory. Forgetting to introduce one of your bosses is not only inconsiderate, but a poor career move. I circulated through the crowd of nearly 200 attendees, dutifully writing down the name of every supervisor who I saw at the point in the speech when I intended to introduce them, which happened to be the second page of my script. Neglecting to return my papers to their correct order, I made my way to the podium and began my remarks on page two.

I eventually discovered my error but decided not to back up and cover the omitted material. The crowd was fighting this year's bumper crop of mosquitoes and was far more interested in exploring the new park than listening to speeches; and besides, I figured the speech wouldn't go to waste because I could use it as this week's column.

What I would have told the crowd, had I started on the correct page of my speech, is that it has been awhile since we dedicated a park. The last dedication that I attended was the Price Park Conservancy in 1996. (A separate grand opening was conducted in 2002.) At the time, Price Park was just the second county park; Natureland Park in the town of Richmond was our first. In 2002, the courthouse square in Elkhorn was permanently designated Veteran's Park. White River Park is our fourth. Although it is not, strictly speaking, a park, in 2003 the county took on the responsibility for maintenance of the White River State Trail, a 12-mile multiuse trail that runs between Elkhorn and Burlington.

Acquiring land for parks was, historically at least, not a universal goal of the county. In fact, until recent years, the mention of parks was often “fighting words” among supervisors. It is an understatement to say that the county board has proceeded cautiously in the area of park acquisition. Past arguments against acquiring and developing parks have included the fact that sufficient state-owned recreational areas exist in the county and that tourists, rather than local residents, would be the beneficiaries of an expanded park system. Critics also argued that acquisition costs reflect only part of the expense associated with park ownership. Ongoing maintenance costs also must be considered.

Park supporters have been active in recent years, urging a more aggressive program of park acquisition and development before rising prices push the cost of land beyond the means of county government to afford it. Supporters cite statistics that place Walworth County far below surrounding counties in terms of public land ownership. A modest investment now, it is argued, will preserve open spaces and recreational amenities for future generations.

Some may argue that the conservative approach taken by earlier boards was premised on a lack of vision, but I am not one of them. There are only so many tax dollars, and the county supports a number of high-cost programs, including a special needs school and nursing home not found in many counties that run extensive park systems. It would be very difficult for the county (and its taxpayers) to maintain a large park system in addition to these other important programs. The reluctance of earlier boards to fund a large park system was, to a certain extent, a matter of priorities. On the other hand, parks need not be an all-or-nothing issue. While we have significantly expanded our park holdings over the past two decades, that expansion has been done conservatively. Until our purchase of the White River County Park, you would have to go back to 1970 to find the last time the county paid money to buy park land. It should also be noted that half of the $1.91 million purchase price of our most recent acquisition was funded by a stewardship grant from the Department of Natural Resources ($955,100). The county also has opted to promote passive uses of our parks, such as hiking, and in the case of the White River County Park, kayaking. Unlike running a pool or golf course, this keeps operating costs low.

Before you venture off to a county park or trail, check out our public works department's website at co.walworth.wi.us. Complete directions on how to get to each park are available as well as hours of operation and rules. Maps and trail guides can be downloaded and printed to make your visit more enjoyable. I noticed that the website needs a little updating  in light of our latest park acquisition. Until that happens, you can find the county's newest park at the intersection of Short and Sheridan Springs roads in the town of Lyons.

We're not done celebrating county parks this summer. At 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 7, we will dedicate a fenced-in dog park at the Price Park Conservancy. I will start writing my speech now. To prevent any confusion, I will limit it to a single page.

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