ASPEN – The closure of Wagner Park until the end of September for a $900,000 project has caused some residents to question the scope and ambition of Aspen’s parks program, which over the years has for the most part enjoyed strong support from the community.
Wagner will be closed more days than it’s open this year. The current project in the 2-acre downtown park will see upgrades to irrigation and drainage systems, as well as the installation of a building to house electrical infrastructure, said Tom Rubel, a 30-year employee who was promoted to parks and open space director this summer.
Work is expected to finish by this fall, but the park won’t fully reopen until 2015 or “until we determine the grass is ready to have people on it,” said Rubel. He said he’s hopeful to open at least one-third of it by winter.
The 47th annual Aspen Ruggerfest, scheduled for Sept. 18-21, will move from its traditional Wagner location to Rio Grande Park, which is on the tail end of a $2.5 million upgrade to its stormwater system and expansion of the John Denver Sanctuary.
The 42nd MotherLode Volleyball Classic, headquartered in Koch Park over Labor Day weekend, will expand its usage of the Rotary fields near the Aspen Recreation Center.
Department lacks scrutiny?
Today marks the 100th day this year that Wagner Park will be closed to the public, according to Rubel.
And that’s too many, said Andy Israel, a frequent park user who has been consistent in his criticism of park closures, no matter what time of year they take place.
In a June letter to Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron, Israel wrote: “I’m not complaining because I want attention or because I have a political agenda. I’m complaining because I feel that the parks should be open to the public … as much as possible.
“I’m not complaining because I’m against events (Food & Wine, snow polo, X Games, rugby and volleyball), I’m complaining because I don’t feel that the parks should be dominated and closed for private agendas,” he continued. “And I’m complaining because the parks department continues to over-spend without much scrutiny (in my opinion) and the institutional encroachment has reached a point of excess.”
The Wagner Park disruptions are an investment into the future that will pay dividends down the road, according to Jeff Woods, manager of parks and recreation for the city of Aspen. He said he believes the improvements the department is implementing now will make it easier for Wagner Park to recover more quickly from special events.
“It’s going to reduce the number of days it’s closed and the areas that are closed,” he said, adding that the infrastructure that’s being installed will allow irrigation and other maintenance issues to not create as many closures thorough the year.
The budget for Wagner Park improvements includes a $522,222 contract with Academy Sports Turf for the infrastructure work; $337,828 for flooring that’s designed to protect the grass during events like the Food & Wine Classic; $14,164 for unspecified “field renovation-parks portion,” and $25,786 in contingencies.
Wagner Park is just one of many projects occurring this year — in terms of capital projects for the city’s entire park system, this is the spendiest year in a decade.
According to Jeffrey Alden, financial analyst for the parks department, just over $5 million will be spent on 26 different projects in 2014. Parks has 32 employees on its staff, as well as an additional $684,908 budget for part-time labor. Its annual wages for full-time and seasonal labor are $2.5 million.
An urban escape
There are 33 public parks and 36 miles of maintained trails within city limits. In the future, the city will add another: the .63-acre Dolinsek family parcel at 619 S. Monarch St. includes a stipulation that requires it become a park and not sold for private development.
Aspen City Council in April approved its purchase for $2.5 million, using money generated by the half-cent sales tax from the parks and open space fund.
“In our mind, it ties into historic Aspen, with Lift 1A and the Skier’s Chalet” which are neighboring properties, said Woods.
If the Lift 1A neighborhood is developed with four-story buildings, as is now allowed through a recent Aspen City Council vote, the future Dolinsek Park could provide an oasis from an increasingly urban environment.
“I think our parks are part of our greatest urban assets,” Skadron said.
Whether it’s somewhere to have a brown bag lunch, meet for a children’s play date or a place to manage social media, parks have always had an important role in Aspen’s history.
As early as 1912, Charles Wagner was trying to create a baseball park at the corner of Mill and Cooper streets. The field has supported most team sports throughout the years, including football and baseball, rugby and volleyball.
During some of the earliest recorded days in Aspen history, “Hallam Lake was the recreation center [park] of the day,” said historian Larry Fredrick. “Every major event in the summer was held there — foot and bike races, the water slide into the lake, row boats, picnics, dances and even Fourth of July events.”
Triangle Park in the West End was identified as a “public square” on a map from 1896, however it was probably used even earlier, he said.
Paepcke Park’s origins hearken back to at least the Roaring ‘20s.
“It seems the women’s civic improvement club back in 1926 started a ‘Civic Center’ (park) between Center (now Garmisch) and Aspen streets and Main Street and Hopkins Avenue,” Fredrick said. A 1941 article about a community day project mentions, “Lilacs, spruce and evergreens were to be donated by local ranchers in Snowmass.”
The Aspen era referred to as the “Quiet Years,” saw plenty of cash-strapped locals seeking out parks for recreation.
“During the Quiet Years, there were enough vacant lots for youngsters to play in,” Fredrick said. “Some of those evolved into what are now city parks.”
One park that seems like it should be historic, Pioneer Park, really isn’t. Acquired in 1993 through a lot split, its purchase was spearheaded by a citizens’ group who raised $500,000 to buy the land before gifting it to the city.
Today’s park system
Aspen’s modern-day parks system has been in existence since 1970 and serves a purpose different than what’s offered by nearby wilderness areas.
If wilderness is where people go to lose themselves, parks offer a place for the community to come together. For example, just recently, hundreds gathered in Rio Grande Park for the Ducky Derby; each weekday the Wildwood School’s bus uses Koch Park as its in-town drop-off spot.
Initially funded with a 1 percent sales tax by prescient voters who wanted to expand their existing golf course and stave off a potential shopping center development, the city of Aspen’s parks department this year has a $15.5 million budget.
And Aspen voters have consistently agreed that parks and open space are valuable. The city was at a crossroads and feeling tremendous growth pressure when The Aspen Times rallied behind this first open space purchase.
Wrote Peggy Clifford in June 1970: “The litany has become sad and familiar: we must decide now, this year, whether we want to save Aspen or sell it, we must decide whether we will simply stand by and watch our town and this valley be flooded with people and buildings or whether we will take decisive steps to regain control over our own destiny.”
The 1 percent sales tax passed with 76 percent of the electorate in favor. Residents continued to open their wallets to preserve land for parks or to stave off development.
“Parks’ [budget] is so big because of the two voter-approved taxes,” said Skadron.
Voters were overwhelmingly in favor of a $24 million bond issue in May 1999 designed to construct and improve recreational and park facilities. It passed with 81 percent in favor. (Prior votes involving recreational facilities had twice failed but a promise of private funding for the Aspen Recreational Center made it more attractive to voters).
The following year, city voters returned to the ballot box for a referendum on another half-penny tax, “for the purpose of buying, improving and maintaining trail, recent and open space properties and ancillary facilities.” The question passed with 63 percent in favor.
This revenue stream gives the city the ability to act swiftly on purchases like the Dolinsek property in the Lift 1A neighborhood and, with Pitkin County, the 7-acre Lindsay parcel on the flanks of Smuggler Mountain in 2012. In 2010, the city contributed $1 million to Pitkin County’s purchase of Sky Mountain Park.
Having cash on hand “leaves us nimble when open space purchases are dropped on our doorstep,” said Skadron.
Editor’s note: Aspen Journalism and the Aspen Daily News are collaborating on coverage of local governments. The Daily News published this story on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Follow reporter Madeleine Osberger on Twitter at Madski99.