There’s a shortage of parks in southeast Fresno. One group steps up with plans to help

Abandoned buildings and weeds mark a former U.S. Department of Agriculture research site on Peach Avenue in southeast Fresno in this 2016 file photo. The 49-acre site was deeded to the city by the National Park Service in 2006 with the condition that it be used for park and recreation purposes.
Abandoned buildings and weeds mark a former U.S. Department of Agriculture research site on Peach Avenue in southeast Fresno in this 2016 file photo. The 49-acre site was deeded to the city by the National Park Service in 2006 with the condition that it be used for park and recreation purposes. tsheehan@fresnobee.com

An organization’s pledge to adopt a former U.S. Department of Agriculture research site and maintain it as a future park could represent a significant step toward providing more recreation area for park-poor southeast Fresno.

The Southeast Fresno Regional Park and Soccer Complex Authority is entering an adopt-a-park agreement with the city of Fresno to care for 18 acres of a larger 49-acre property on the east side of Peach Avenue between Butler and Church avenues. The organization, which includes the city of Sanger and the Malaga County Water District, has a long-range goal to raise funds for the development of a park with eight soccer fields, playgrounds, tennis and basketball courts, a softball diamond and a community center.

The Fresno City Council unanimously approved the adopt-a-park agreement at its meeting Thursday. The 18-month deal is intended to assess the ability of the park/soccer authority to muster enough community volunteer support to maintain a portion of the site and eventually generate enough financial support to take on the cost of building and operating a regional park and soccer fields. If successful, the joint powers authority is hopeful that the property could ultimately be transferred from the city to the organization.

“Our major objective in bringing community resources to this project is to complete the development of a regional park and soccer complex that will improve the quality of life and the health of residents of the Fresno region,” Jose Leon-Barraza, CEO of the soccer/park authority, said in a letter to the city.

The weed-infested, mostly vacant site straddles a San Joaquin Valley Railroad line. On the north side of the railroad tracks is a 3  1/2 -acre community garden and a handful of abandoned buildings. The federal government gave the property to the city in 2006 for a regional park.

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“Since that time, very little progress has been made in developing this site as originally envisioned, primarily due to a lack of funding needed to support the cost of construction and maintenance,” interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Rudd said in a memo this week to the city council. The effects of an economic recession that began in 2007 eviscerated much of Fresno’s ability to maintain many of its existing parks, let alone take on the expense of building major new parks.

In 2016, Rudd – then Fresno’s city manager – estimated the cost of building a park and soccer fields on the Peach Avenue site at about $30 million. That’s money the city didn’t have then and, according to Rudd’s memo, doesn’t have now.

In addition to the cost to build a park, Rudd added that a fully built-out park would likely cost $500,000 to $750,000 each year to maintain.

The National Park Service, which deeded the land to the city, “has raised concerns with the lack of progress” related to Fresno’s 2006 commitments to develop the property as a park, Rudd said.

In July 2016, Park Service officials sent the city a letter indicating that if Fresno couldn’t create a park on the property, it should turn the land over to someone who can. “If the city of Fresno chooses not to fulfill its original intent to develop the property for public park and recreation use, we request that you be prepared to willingly deed the property to an appropriate grantee that we approve to pursue the intended park and recreation use of the property under the current deed conditions,” wrote Ray Murray, chief of the Park Service’s partnership programs for the Pacific West region.

The adopt-a-park agreement calls for the soccer/park authority to establish a cleanup schedule for volunteers to clear trash, tall grass, weeds and debris from the site, as well as pruning existing trees and shrubs. The authority is also being tasked with planting new shrubs, 120 trees and 60,000 square feet of new turf and to install new irrigation and drainage systems.

Leon-Barraza said the board has approved launching a major fundraising campaign to pay for the adopt-a-park efforts.

“There are plenty of success stories all over our nation where community resources have been used to implement projects where local municipalities have not been successful. The example we would like to emulate is the construction of a community-supported 18 soccer field complex in Marysville/Yuba City in Yolo County,” Leon-Barraza added. “This soccer complex continues to be operated, maintained and funded by community soccer leagues.”

Southeast Fresno was identified among several “areas of need” in the city’s recently adopted Parks Master Plan “because they have either poor condition parks that lack adequate amenities or lack community and/or neighborhood parks entirely.”

“A high concentration of parks in poor condition is found in the south and southwest, while areas in the west and southeast of the city lack recreation centers,” says the plan, which was approved by the city council on Jan. 25. “Areas that lack all community and neighborhood park amenities are located in the west and southeast, which are also areas with high population densities.”

The Rev. Juan Saavedra, pastor of two United Methodist Churches in Fresno, praised the council for its approval of the adopt-a-park agreement. “In doing this, you are honoring the reason we were given the park in the first place,” he said.

“Can we make this work? Can we make a park emerge from a cooperative relationship between independent entities in the city? Absolutely,” Saavedra added. “This can be a model for what can happen not only in Fresno, but in other places around the U.S.”