Walmart comes to aid of proposed SE Fresno park with $10K donation

The Fresno BeeNovember 20, 2013 

News conferences at the site of a proposed park in southeast Fresno are finally acquiring some credibility -- thanks to Walmart.

Council Member Clint Olivier and nearby residents on Wednesday unveiled an artist's rendering of the proposed Martin Ray Reilly Park at Chestnut Avenue and Highway 180.

It was much like the media event held three years ago at the same site: City officials with grand speeches, neighbors with high hopes, a big chunk of dirt with considerable promise.

The nearly four acres remain bare dirt, mainly because City Hall has money to build a park ($3.2 million from a state grant) but no money to maintain it.

Walmart is helping fill the hole by donating $10,000 for park upkeep.

Wednesday's news conference permitted Olivier, who serves this portion of District 7, to accept a ceremonial check from Amelia McLear, Walmart's public affairs director for Central California.

"This is one more step in how we want to be a community partner," McLear said.

Olivier is well aware of the park's backstory.

"Thank you to all the residents of the area who have been so patient," he said.

Fresno generally is first choice of national reporters who want to spotlight a major American city with limited greenspace. The Chestnut/Highway 180 area, an expanse broken by the freeway and struggling for a neighborhood identity, seems always to get the short end of parks' stick.

Henry T. Perea, Olivier's predecessor, held a groundbreaking ceremony for Martin Ray Reilly Park in November 2010, shortly before he departed for Sacramento to take his recently won Assembly seat. Neighborhood residents, present in considerable numbers, cheered the groundbreaking.

But even as shovel-plunging politicians grunted, City Hall finances were going to the devil. The Great Recession hit harder. Officials quit spending from a city parks bond. Then they took $350,000 from the parks department to bail out a convention center that couldn't pay its electric bill.

The administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin, already relying on volunteers to maintain many parks, decided it was absurd to spend millions on new greenspace only to have it deteriorate for want of care.

Olivier for three years has walked a fine line not of his making, pressuring the administration to loosen the maintenance purse-strings while tending to constituent frustration.

Olivier on Wednesday said construction of Martin Ray Reilly Park should begin in early 2014. The ribbon-cutting, he said, should come in late spring or early summer.

The park will have basketball courts, enough grass for a soccer match, walking path, tot lot, bathrooms and parking.

Olivier said maintenance will cost $30,000 to $40,000 a year. He said he and City Manager Bruce Rudd are talking about ways to complement Walmart's generosity.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or ghostetter@fresnobee.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.

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