Archived Story

Russom Park grant accepted

Published 8:00am Tuesday, July 28, 2009

By JOHN EBY
Dowagiac Daily News

On the surface, Russom Field, the Witko Ponds and the former gasoline station where Howard Hall’s family lives would seem to have nothing in common.

Yet, lumped together on Monday night’s Dowagiac council agenda, each represents a piece of the city’s development vision.

Most notably, Russom Field youth sports complex, 37 acres being acquired in partnership with Silver Creek Township, represents accomplishment of a more than half-a-million-dollar “field of dreams” that has been pursued for years for a $61,742 city outlay.

“That’s a pretty good deal,” remarked First Ward Councilman Darron Murray. “It’s difficult, but we’re still doing things.”

“It sure is fun being part of the city’s history,” added Third Ward Councilman Dr. Charles Burling. “Some amazing things happened tonight.”

Less well known, but enshrined in the city’s recreation plan, is development of the Witko Ponds, a quarry near the wastewater treatment plant on M-62 West where fishing access was in danger of being lost.

Finally, the Candy Corner building, purchased from Kirk and Donna Proshwitz, who formerly operated a paintball business at 207 W. Division St., was characterized as compatible with ongoing downtown redevelopment.

Retired grounds director Gary Carlile, who has worked with Dowagiac and Silver Creek as a consultant, said what is now being called Russom Park first appeared in the city’s five-year park and open space plan in 2002 as a “long-term goal for the community.”

In 2006, Dowagiac made its first unsuccessful application, seeking more than $500,000.
From that failure the city learned some hard lessons about the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, a program funded by oil and gas revenues from state lands.

“Therefore,” Carlile said, “the trust fund board set up criteria for this project which funds primarily what we would call ‘lead and line’ – hunting and fishing, Great Lakes acquisition. Very strongly resource-based. These goals, quite honestly, didn’t gel very well when you’re talking about a park and open space program. Unfortunately, in today’s economy, and the economy of the last five years, there are very few state or federal programs for a recreation-based acquisition project. At the state level, there are virtually none. In the future, the trust fund is being revised, so we can get a little more recreation development and acquisition. But that was not the case in ’06 or in our current program in ’08.”

“Good news” that came from the 2006 setback proved two-fold, Carlile said.

“One, a friend and past grant administrator suggested we get a formal appraisal of the property at our expense,” Carlile said. “Secondly, and most importantly, he suggested we look at a very small section of the trust fund grant program called the small grants program. – $100,000 maximum. But, these grants are not held as stringently to the trust fund guidelines. Not as tough on the lead and line aspect. In our round of funding, there have been no more than six applicants under this $100,000 trust fund.”

On the other hand, there was the daunting prospect that the $100,000 the city could receive would only account for 20 percent of the cost.

In 2006, the city talked with Silver Creek since half the project was situated there and found the township enthused about helping afford the local share.

As discussions progressed, Silver Creek was amenable to its own stake.

Two $100,000 grant applications brought the project another 20 percent closer.

Out of meetings Silver Creek Township Supervisor Bill Saunders and Acting City Manager Rozanne Scherr conducted with the Russom family came a commitment to donate $154,992 of the appraised value of the project as an in-kind donation.

“We had then what we needed to put together two trust fund applications and try for the project once again under the small grants program,” Carlile said. “In April (2008) Dowagiac made application for the east half,” upon which the ballfields and restrooms are situated.

Silver Creek undertook last August applying for a companion $100,000 for the west 18 acres of the parcel that is primarily open field.

The trust fund board approved the applications in December.

From there the fund requests made their way through the Michigan House and Senate, a conference committee and the finance committee to Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“Finally,” Carlile stated, “we have in place today a grant agreement offer to make this official. Silver Creek took action two weeks ago.” City Council acted Monday night.

“We will accept their grant and we will be on our way to acquiring this property,” he said. “However, there’s a lot of stuff to take place in the meantime. We were able to get approval to incur costs. We had our appraisal updated. Appraisals have to be done by a certified state appraiser by state standards, then it’s submitted to the State of Michigan real estate division to review and make sure his work is appropriate and reasonable and the value is correct. That was submitted May 12 – almost three months ago. We’ve completed a title search, an environmental review and all the legal descriptions. We are there. We are ready, we are waiting. Once the state review appraiser has evaluated it and, hopefully, approved it, we will be ready to close on the property.”

State Rep. Sharon Tyler, R-Niles, who visited the council meeting, offered to help speed the process along.

“A project idea brought forth in 2000 or 2001, formalized in our 2002 recreation plan, is now close to reality,” Carlile said. “I can say with certainty it will absolutely happen. It will happen because it’s right and good for our community. It will happen because of a donation in value by the Russom family. It will happen because two units of government chose to cooperate and work together for the overall good of the communities. We will have our field of dreams.”

“It doesn’t get any better,” commented Mayor Pro Tem Wayne Comstock, who conducted the meeting in the absence of Mayor Donald Lyons. “The working relationship and support we have of Silver Creek Township in the development of Russom Field.”

Carlile characterized it as “one of the most difficult projects that I have ever worked on” in his more than 30 years in Dowagiac, “but it is probably the most far-reaching. Working with the people at Silver Creek, they’re a great group. It’s neat to have everyone saying, ‘Let’s get this critter done.’ The good news is, we’re going to have it. The bad news is, we’re going to have it. We’ve just started. There’s a tremendous amount of work to be done. We all live here. We’ve seen the changes. You’ve got to take action now, whether it’s the Witko property or this because they’re a big part of the future.”

Carlile estimated Silver Creek put in about $43,000 “because I know the local share is $109,000.”

Second Ward Councilman Bob Schuur made the motion accepting the grant.

‘This will be the next step’

Related to accepting the Russom Park grant is creating a six-member board of city and township officials for planning and oversight.

Makeup is expected to consist of City Manager Kevin Anderson and Silver Creek Supervisor Bill Saunders, with two members appointed by Dowagiac and two other members appointed by the township.

“The next round of this is to say, ‘How do we put the organization in place that will oversee the ongoing development of this particular piece of property?’ ” at Yaw Street and Middle Crossing Road just north of Dowagiac, Anderson said. “To say what are going to be the uses, how we’re going to put all the facilities in and do some master planning. I think one of the most important things as we were talking about is that initially not much changes.

Groups that are using it and have been maintaining it are going to have to continue to do that. But there are some longer-term goals and hopes and plans for this piece of property. This would be the group to get together and start to look at a master plan and the pros and cons of formation of a recreation authority (with other townships). It would look at how funding could take place over time. What grants should be applied for. How we become responsible stewards of that property both immediately and long-term. This will be the next step.”

Third Ward Councilman Leon Laylin, supported by Third Ward Councilman Dr. Charles Burling, moved adoption of Resolution 4 to form and to seek members for the joint advisory committee.

City members will be appointed by the mayor with the concurrence of the council.
As a recommending body with an even number of seats, all recommendations require a two-thirds vote.

Any cost for master plans will be shared 50/50.

Expenditures could be made only with budget approval from each governing body.
First Ward Councilwoman Lori Hunt was absent.

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