Long-planned Fresno park faces another hurdle

The Fresno BeeDecember 17, 2013 

Fresno City Hall is on the verge of signing a five-year deal with a local nonprofit to oversee a proposed park designed in part for disabled people.

But the way things are going, there's no guarantee the park will be built in five years.

The City Council on Thursday will consider approving a contract with Resources for Independence, Central Valley to operate the Universally Accessible Park on Gettysburg Avenue west of Highway 99.

The agreement calls for Resources for Independence to maintain the park while providing programming in the community center. The park is to be open to the public, but will have amenities for people with special needs.

Money for construction has been secured, including a $5 million state grant and more than $1 million from a city parks bond.

City Hall's big challenge is finding the will to begin work. That's why the council is in the odd position of putting the cart before the horse -- acquiring a park operator while doubts remain about the wisdom of the park.

The Universally Accessible Park has been on the drawing boards for more than three years. Unfortunately , the idea gained steam just when the Great Recession hit hardest at City Hall.

The parks department depends in large degree on the general fund, money spent at the discretion of elected officials. The administration of Mayor Ashley Swearengin responded to declining revenues in part by halting construction of new parks until it found another way to pay for their maintenance.

City Manager Bruce Rudd, who doubles as parks director, asked community groups to help. About two years ago, Resources for Independence (a nonprofit that serves the disabled) agreed to tackle UAP's maintenance needs. The nonprofit began fund-raising.

Three problems emerged.

The city asked for bids to build the park. The lowest bid was about $8 million, much too rich for the city. The city has cut back on the design (the community center was shrunk) and may soon seek new bids.

City Hall isn't sure about UAP's annual maintenance costs. The original figure was in the $40,000 range. Now it's about $100,000 and could rise. The reason -- city officials want the park to build a reserve to pay for future capital improvements (such as a new roof for the community center).

And Resources for Independence found it hard to negotiate with corporate donors when the only recognition of its relationship with City Hall was a handshake.

Joanna Zamora, a community organizer with Resources for Independence, said the nonprofit has raised more than $100,000 in cash and pledges for UAP. She said the five-year deal will strengthen the corporate world's faith in her group.

"We're fully confident we can do this," Zamora said.

Council President Blong Xiong, who represents the UAP neighborhood, said formalizing the city's partnership with the nonprofit is "a good sign that we're going to get this park done."

Rudd is more cautious. Fresnans and Valley residents must decide if they want a park unlike any in the region.

"It's our home," Rudd said. "What do you want it to look like?"

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

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