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Proposal to upgrade Jim Wood Park could cost about $500,000

CHANGES COMING? — Steubenville City Schools wants to either buy or lease Jim Wood Park from the city, in hopes of making major improvements to its ballfields, walking track and splash pad, among other projects. -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — About a month from now, Steubenville City Schools officials hope to be talking directly with residents about the improvements they’ve proposed for Jim Wood Park and why they could be good for the community.

School officials want to build a state-of-the-art, Legion quality baseball facility, “completely refurbish” the softball field, addressing drainage issues that have plagued it in the past, and also relocate the soccer field to another part of the park — sectioning it off so there’d be space for several youth teams to play or practice at a time.

They also plan to enhance the walking track and relocate the playground, a shelter and gazebo to a city-approved location in the park, and redo the splash pad so the water it uses is recycled instead of going down the drain. There would also be additional parking.

Superintendent Melinda Young said all that is not going to be cheap: All told, she figures it could cost around $500,000.

“To make it a first-class facility, it would be a substantial investment in our community,” she said.

To pay for it, she said they’d use funds in hand, though they would look into grant opportunities and approach private foundations.

But the only way any of that happens, she said, is if Steubenville City Schools can buy the park outright or, failing that, execute a long-term lease.

“We’re not ruling out a lease, but it would have to be a long-term lease because it will be very costly for us to put in the new ballfield, repair the current softball field and move the soccer field,” Young said Friday. “We want it to be a total recreational facility.”

School officials first approached City Council about Jim Wood Park in December, only to be told they should have talked to the Parks & Recreation Board first. So two weeks ago they made a presentation to the park board, pledging to schedule public meetings to give city officials a chance to hear what voters have to say about their idea. Only then would board members make a recommendation to City Council, which would have the final say.

The school board hopes to schedule those public meetings for late March or early April.

In the meantime, Young has made it clear she sees the proposal as a “win-win for the community,” since the public would have access to the entire property with the lone exception of the high school baseball field. That, because it would be tournament-quality, could only be used by Big Red or Catholic Central.

“We want it to be a total recreation complex, where people will be walking (while other events are going on), that kind of environment,” she said. “The enhanced walking track is very important. The more people we have around the parks, in that area, the less chance there is for any type of vandalism.”

Ideally, Young has said, they’d make the park “an area where the school community can come together and the community can come together.”

That may be easier said than done.

One woman, who didn’t want to be identified, said she regularly walks at the track and she’s not convinced the board will live up to its promise to keep facilities accessible to the general public.

Lorrie Raymond, whose home on Canterbury Boulevard overlooks the park, has said several times she “just (doesn’t) think this is the area to do it.”

“I just don’t want to see the community have something taken away,” she’d said at the park board meeting. “It just needs to be in a different area. Why not take an area that’s not (already developed) and make it beautiful.”

And even Park Board Chairman Ken Peterson questioned if the park would truly be public use if residents couldn’t have access to the proposed Legion-quality ballfield at Jim Wood, though another board member pointed out with the amount of money that’s involved in developing a field to those standards, “you can’t have people just walking in there.”

Steubenville High School Principal Ted Gorman agreed, pointing out communities in and around Jefferson County typically restrict access to their high school baseball field.

“You can’t just go into Toronto High School’s baseball field, for instance, and play a pick up game,” he said. “It doesn’t happen that way. But we’ve already talked with the youth league” to encourage them to use Jim Wood fields.

And Gorman said school policy is to encourage public use, “we have a track record of that.”

“We’re not looking to close the park,” he said. “We want to do what’s in the best interest of our community. And we have top-notch facilities in Steubenville City Schools, we take care of our facilities–we do things right the first time, so we’re not always going back and revisiting what we’ve already done. Why wouldn’t we want to do that in the west end, too?”

Gorman insists the proposal makes sense, since city officials have made no secret of the fact that manpower and funds are limited.

“We feel it’s a great opportunity,” he said. “Nobody’s going to be losing a park – actually, they’ll be getting a first class park to walk in. But it has to come down to trust.”

He also points out it’s a chance to fix things at Jim Wood Park that aren’t working now, like the limited parking and the decidedly non-economical splash pad, which used roughly 1.5 million gallons of water in 2019 alone.

“If you or I lived there…we’d get a bill for $10,000 or $20,000 each month it’s in use,” Gorman said. “They don’t have to pay for it so they’re not losing anything. But over the course of a few months, it’s a lot of money.”

The school district’s plan, he said, would be to invest in a system that would allow the water to be recycled.

“We can’t accept mediocrity,” Gorman added. “If we have high expectations of others, we have to have the same for ourselves. We can’t be satisfied just to have a park– why not have a first-class park? If we have the opportunity to take over Jim Wood Park, we’ll make it first class so when people come in, they’ll have a sense of pride.”

And getting council to a consensus could be difficult, with most saying they’re reserving judgment until they can see a more detailed plan for the park and how the public reacts to it.

“I’m not in favor of selling,” 6th Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna said. “(But) I’m open-minded and willing to listen to the plan they have and also the citizens at the meetings, then make a decision.”

First Ward Councilwoman Asantewa Anyabwile said she’s new to council so she’s still gathering information. For now, Anyabwile said she’s going to stay on the fence.

But 3rd Ward Councilman Eric Timmons had no such qualms, saying as far as he’s concerned leasing is off the table.

“I think there are two options, sell or don’t sell,” Timmons said. “Leasing makes no sense to me, especially if you include a provision in the purchase agreement that the city has the first right to purchase the park back if (they were to) sell it in the future. The city should take the money from the sale and put it in the other parks. The school could (invest) in the park, maintain it and keep it open for the public. (It) would be a win for everybody.”

Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella, however, is only interested in leasing, though even that’s far from final.

“At this point in time I’m looking at a lease,” he said. “However, I want to see the final proposal…not just a (conceptual plan).”

And 4th Ward Councilman Scott Dressell said he’s “fine with the Board of Education upgrading things, but it (still must) be open to the public and belong to the taxpayers.”

Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn, meanwhile, said there are a number of important issues that must be addressed before the community meetings, among them where the second shelter and gazebo would be moved and where the additional parking would go, and if the park is sold, “what assurances will the city give to the school so they know their investment will be honored.”

“Then we need (the) community meetings to let the public ask their questions,” Hahn said.

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