Improvements planned for regional parks - East Valley Tribune: News

Improvements planned for regional parks

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Posted: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 3:22 pm | Updated: 12:35 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

From an indoor archery facility to more equestrian-friendly amenities, improvements are eventually coming to Maricopa County's regional parks.

While the park system's new master plan outlines big plans for the future, most of the large projects at parks including Usery Mountain Regional Park in Mesa and San Tan Mountain Regional Park near Queen Creek will be pushed to the future courtesy of the economy.

Maricopa County's Parks and Recreation Department began working on a new park master plan in 2007, the first update to the plan since 1965, said R.J. Cardin, department director. The county Board of Supervisors approved the new plan last month.

That 1965 plan did a good job of anticipating population growth and setting aside land to create the 125,000-acre system in the county, Cardin said.

But it was time to update it to reflect what visitors want today, Cardin said. The plan focuses on keeping 90 percent of the parks open land. No more than 10 percent of parks will be developed with facilities ranging from restrooms to nature centers, central buildings for exhibits, classes and interaction with park staff.

"I think (visitors) may be demanding ... a little higher-quality facilities, some technology that wasn't there," Cardin said.

For instance, there's a new equestrian staging area on San Tan Mountain Regional Park's plan for this fiscal year. Usery Park is scheduled to see a new indoor archery facility to complement the current outdoor ranges and courses in the 2010-11 fiscal year.

New technology could include interactive kiosks and wireless Internet access at the parks' nature centers, Cardin said. He also hopes to roll out a online reservation system for campsites in the next year.

But all those plans began forming before the economy started to sour.

The park system gets most of its approximately $7 million budget from user fees, Cardin said. The system has seen a steady increase in visitors, with 1.4 million typically visiting annually.

At the same time, county funding is going down. About 20 percent of the budget typically comes from the county, but that's down to 10 percent, Cardin said.

As a result, the parks are focusing on smaller projects and pushing the bigger items, including the equestrian and archery improvements, out on the calendar, Cardin said.

San Tan Mountain Regional Park has recently focused on small improvements, like adding kiosks to trailheads and opening a new chuckwalla habitat, said park supervisor David Jordan.

It also took interim steps to fulfill items in the master plan, including placing picnic tables under trees instead of building ramadas, Jordan said.

"That would be our initial solution," Jordan said. "Then as funding permits, we're going to try to get some nice ramadas for people to relax in."

San Tan park is relying heavily on volunteers and donations to make improvements, Jordan said. For instance, a group of Boy Scouts is working on a project to identify plants around the park.

San Tan also has an active volunteer group, Friends of the San Tan Mountain Regional Park. The group regularly does small fundraisers, including star-gazing events and selling spots on a patio where patrons can get their names engraved, said Jeff Studley, group board member.

The group is working on bigger fundraisers, including golf tournaments. Still, it's been harder to raise money and attract volunteers, Studley said.

"The economy going down and our need to generate money kind of happened at the same time," Studley said.

Still, the group is taking on new projects. For instance, they hope local students will help create a "critter pond" at the park, Studley said.

Usery Mountain Regional Park, on the other hand, is looking at grants and donations to bring things like interactive kiosks to its new nature center.

The new 4,000-square-foot building was constructed with money set aside before the budget crunch, said park supervisor Jennifer Johnston.

"We didn't have a building here. We didn't have a place for our visitors to even come and purchase a cold drink," Johnston said. "Now we have that. We have a place where they can come and talk to park staff."

Johnston is currently building partnerships to expand the park's offerings. For instance, Usery Park is readying to offer its first yoga classes in that new center, and Johnston hopes to give desert immersion workshops through a partnership with Desert Botanical Garden.

Interactive kiosks, which would use computers to let visitors learn more about the plants and animals in the parks, are a high priority for Johnston. But those likely won't become a reality in the near future without donations or grants, she said.

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