One of the most exciting things about coming home from summer vacation in our neighborhood was turning the corner to find our renovated park finally open and herds of kids using it. This park is truly a neighborhood park in every sense of the word since the neighborhood met with parks staff to plan it and pay for it. Prompted by professional parks people, including a landscape architect, we came up with a common vision for our park. We wanted a place that invited people of all ages and abilities and encouraged them to move and play. We wanted a place where city kids could experience nature. We wanted a place where adults could get into shape without paying gym fees.
We got it. In these last remaining days of summer vacation before schools reopen, people of all ages have taken to this park. My husband and I showed up early on a Sunday to get photos without the crowds, but a woman already rested on a park bench and a man cut through the park walking his dogs. Even after sundown, children and their parents are in the park. Mothers sit at a picnic table under the new shade cover talking. Dads scoop up crying kids and cuddle them until they are ready to shake off a skinned knee and try the playground again. We are meeting neighbors we never knew existed.
Thank you Cosumnes Community Services District and thank you Jack and Lisa Williams, the neighbors who pulled us all together to transform an overgrown softball field with weeds so high the bases were hidden into a natural park setting with exercise stations, picnic tables, and three separate play areas. To see documents from the planning process, click here.
Jennie McConnell Park, 6.6 acres in southeast Elk Grove, Calif., was completed in 1995. Jennie McConnell is credited with organizing Elk Grove residents at the turn of the 20th century and saving an oak tree grove which later became the 33-acre Elk Grove Regional Park. The modern-day park that is named after her, McConnell Park, originally included barbecue pits, a tennis court, a softball field, playground equipment, and lots of open grassy space. Then the recession hit. Cosumnes CSD, which includes the parks department, asked neighbors to approve a tax hike to cover increased maintenance costs. Most voters said no. Over the next years, CSD maintained the portion of the park that included huge oak trees, leaving the tennis courts to deteriorate in the weather. The softball field died out and weeds overtook it. A line between the watered grassy area and the area no longer maintained became a clear symbol of what the park could have been and what it had become.
In August 2015, the Williams called interested neighbors together with parks staff to talk about what could be done, if anything. A neighborhood church provided meeting space. CSD officials said homeowners would have to cough up more money if they wanted a renovation. CSD asked for between $133 and $136 a year more, depending on the amenities the neighborhood wanted. Homeowners would also need to decide what they wanted their park to look like. The years had taken its toll on the park, and the entrance to the neighborhood. A car accident had damaged structures at the neighborhood entrance, and the park’s signage was deteriorating. In some cases, odd Grecian posts stood alone.
After that initial meeting came more meetings in the Williams’ home. Parks officials took notes and developed plans from ideas people threw out. Once we had a plan, the Williams rallied those in attendance to campaign their neighbors to approve a tax hike, and CSD agreed to an election. We knocked on doors, showed people our ideas, and talked up the park. Some people questioned why we needed to pay extra for the park. They were naturally leery of higher taxes and wondered why the government wasn’t doing more to provide services. We explained that we are the government. It’s our neighborhood park, and we need to pay for it. A fresh neighborhood entrance and renovated park would raise property values. In April 2016 most voters agreed to pay for the renovation.
Still, we had to wait. California was in the midst of a severe drought and any new planting was on hold. Finally, in 2017, work began. We noticed small things at first – new signs. Then the playground equipment was removed, and people wondered if we had agreed to that. New basketball courts went in and teenagers started showing up to play. Meanwhile, heavy equipment moved into one end of the park and a fence went up. As the months rolled by, so did the soil in this area. By summertime neighbors took to the online neighborhood website, Nextdoor.com, to ask if anyone had news as to when the park would open. Kids and their parents were getting antsy.
We weren’t home when the fences finally came down, but we have counted at least 20 people on the playgrounds at any given time since. That’s not including those at the basketball courts or further down, practicing their soccer moves.
Sure, we’ve had at least one critic. One woman has taken to Nextdoor.com to complain that the park does not have restrooms, which means kids must walk home if they need to go. She has complained twice – in all capital letters – that she does not want her tax money paying for this park when the playground equipment should be further to the back and, she feels, more shade covers should have been added. Some of us who planned the park questioned where she was when the meetings were taking place, but we received no response. After all, everything, and I mean everything, we asked for – and more – is in that park.
On one recent evening, as the sun went down, I walked one of our dogs along the jogging path. A toddler stood atop the newly created music hill, accessible by a maze-like path or a steep rocky climb. He played the chimes as two adults stood by, his music sounding across the park as night fell. I have to say there are worse things on which to spend our tax dollars.