PENDLETON — Liam Hughes said the era of most children riding their bikes down to the neighborhood park are over.
These days, the director of the Pendleton Parks and Recreation Department said parents shuttle their progeny to the parks with the most amenities, regardless of the distance from their homes.
The department’s 2019-23 strategic plan reflects this trend by including plans that will not only improve parks but also change what they offer.
If the plan becomes reality, Pendleton residents could see old parks get new amenities like a splash pad or dog park.
Before the strategic plan was finalized, Parks and Rec wasn’t just following an outdated plan. The plan was nonexistent.
With Hughes hired as the director in early 2018 and the Pendleton Parks and Recreation Commission bringing in some new members, Kathryn Brown, the chair of the commission, said it was the right time to create a plan for the department.
Brown is a former publisher for the East Oregonian and is vice president of the EO Media Group, the newspaper’s parent company.
Rather than hire a consultant to help develop a master plan, Hughes advocated to have the plan created in-house.
Hughes said the resulting document has most of what a master plan would, just without as much data or historical context.
“We focused on the future,” he said. “Not so much the past.”
Brown said the commission reviewed several drafts of the plan before approving the final version.
“It was a big job and a pretty in-depth process,” she said.
Pendleton’s park system is expansive for a town its size.
According to the strategic plan, Pendleton averages one park for every 833 people, more than twice the national average.
Maintaining and managing all those parks has a cost, and unlike the department’s recreation, aquatics and cemetery programs, parks don’t take in a significant amount of revenue from user fees.
Ninety-eight percent of parks’ funding comes from property tax funding, a source of revenue it must share with police, fire and ambulance, and other public services.
But rather than seek out a property tax levy, Hughes wants to target people’s disposable income to help sustain parks and expand the city’s recreation programs.
He pointed to the Wild West Beerfest, a department event started this year to assist in funding a scholarship program for a new after-school program the city is helping start this fall, as the type of event the city could use to bolster its coffers.
And there’s no shortage of parks and recreation projects that could use some money.
Included in the strategic plan is a capital improvement plan that acts as a laundry list of potential projects and purchases for the department.
The projects range from run-of-the-mill maintenance projects like chip resurfacing at various playgrounds to more ambitious ideas like a series of riverfront parks with access to the water.
Parks commission and staff prioritized the projects that were most important, and a few them could lead to some big changes in the park system.
The department has already gotten a good start on one of its goals by finishing up the installation of three new playgrounds at Aldrich, May, and Sherwood parks by the end of August.
Although May Park is getting a new play structure, its hardtop section — a basketball court and some skate ramps — has seen better days.
But rather than restoring that section of May Park, the plan calls for the department to repurpose it into a dog park.
The city already has the Let’er Bark Dog Park at 1170 N.W. Carden Ave., but the park has some drawbacks.
The park is sandwiched between the north bank of the Umatilla River and a Round-Up owned property, meaning there’s no dedicated parking. Additionally, the park’s presence in the floodplain makes a fenced area where dogs can run around in all but impossible.
Hughes thinks there’s demand for a second dog park with more amenities, referencing a 2018 survey commissioned by the department that shows about half of Pendleton’s residents own a dog, a share that increases to two-thirds if those dog owners also have children.
The addition of a dog park could make Pendleton a “destination park” that brings people from all over town, Hughes said, a role that’s currently filled by other parks like Community Park and Pioneer Park.
Til Taylor Park’s wading pool has long acted as a hook for families during the summer, but like May Park’s hardtop, it’s starting to show its age.
Besides the growing maintenance costs, Hughes said the Pendleton Aquatic Center must send one of its lifeguard staff to act as a supervisor and groundskeeper during the pool’s operating hours.
Converting the pool to a splash pad, an area with water-spraying nozzles and pipes but no standing water, would be cheaper to operate while still offering the public a place to cool down in the summer, Hughes said.
The parks department would also want to target the playground at Til Taylor Park. Although the mid-20th century equipment is sturdy, Hughes said it’s out of compliance with modern safety standards.
None of these changes would come cheaply.
The department estimates it would take $200,000 for the Til Taylor splash pad and and another $40,000 for the May dog park.
And although the department didn’t provide estimates for everything on its capital improvement plan, paying for it all would likely dip into a seven-figure price range.
Similar to the three new playgrounds, Hughes said the parks department would need to hunt for grants to get some of the bigger projects off the ground.