You will soon see a lot of yellow in Milwaukee County Parks. Dandelions sure, but also a whole bunch of construction equipment. Dump trucks and graders are just some of the gear workers will use to make much-needed repairs. The county plans to spend $14.6 million this year improving its parks, chipping away at a list of deferred maintenance needs totaling $300 million.
As soon as the weather warms, workers will dig into more than two dozen parks projects. At Johnsons Park near 18th and Brown in Milwaukee, Parks operations chief Guy Smith says an outdated shelter won’t be around much longer.
"We’re looking for the removal and demolition of this existing building within June and we are looking to have our new building up and ready to go in August," Smith says.
The $380,000 facility will provide picnickers with cover in case of bad weather, and feature updated restrooms. The new building will complement spiffy new playground equipment that crews installed earlier.
Venice Williams of the Friends of Johnsons Park says she hopes the improvements will encourage families –especially kids, to “unplug” their electrical devices and visit the park.
"Back in the day, this is where you went. You came to a park to swing, to play on the monkey bars and to slide. Parks invite residents to come out of isolation, to come past your front door, or your stoop or your porch and to come to the park and gather again and to play," Williams says.
She says her group will host summertime programs at the park including baseball and kite flying. Another central city park targeted for improvement this year, is Moody Park on West Burleigh. Moody will gain a splash pad and play area, in place of a dilapidated indoor pool.
Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele says he is keenly aware the parks system faces upwards of $300 million dollars in deferred maintenance. Yet he’s excited about this year’s outlay of $14.6 million because it’s most the county has spent on such projects since 2002.
"This capital investment is in the budget. I mean, this isn’t talk. People are going to see this. I can’t tell you how pumped I am for people to see the very visible impact that this is going to make in a way they haven’t seen in a long time," Abele says.
Abele pledges to allocate more money in future budgets until the parks department can catch up with the repairs put off for so long.
The park system’s “fix it” list also includes roadway improvements. That's exciting news for Jim Guolee, president of the Park People, an advocacy group. The KK River Parkway is one of the projects planned for this summer. Crews will replace crumbling asphalt.
Guolee says the improvements will add luster to a park system staggering because of relentless budget cuts and staff reductions.
"In a lot of cases people will walk into a park and they’ll find litter and graffiti and vandalism, that just degrades their value of the park because it’s depressing. If people come into a park and they see a shiny new building and new paint and looking like it should, I think that they would ultimately have greater appreciation for our parks," Guolee says.
While plenty of people are pleased about the planned improvements, Supervisor Gerry Broderick doubts the parks system will ever catch up with needs, as long as it depends on property taxes. Broderick serves on the County Board’s parks committee. He says without a dedicated revenue source to pay for everyday operations and maintenance, conditions in the parks will continue to deteriorate.
"You know we now have one-third of the employees that we had 20 years ago to tend the same 15,000 acres of parkland and I think that in itself speaks to the challenges," Broderick says.
In 2008, Milwaukee County voters supported a referendum calling for a local sales tax hike to fund several services, including parks. State leaders failed to craft the necessary legislation.