City considers excavation of Beckwith Park

DOWAGIAC — Under the shade of a large gazebo in the center of Front Street in Dowagiac, sits a small park, lush with green grass, blooming bushes and the soft buzz of bumble bees.

However, the park may soon be a construction site, as behind the picturesque façade, it is crumbling, say city leaders.   

City leaders are now considering changes and a possible excavation of Beckwith Park citing unsafe surfaces, structures and tip hazards in the park.

Monday evening, City Manager Kevin Anderson led the Dowagiac City Council out to Beckwith Park to discuss the problems with Beckwith Park and potential solutions.

“The goal right now is for the park to be safe for people to be in,” Anderson said. “That is our priority.”

The main problem with the park is that the ground has been continually settling to create uneven surfaces and trip hazards. A total excavation and releveling of the park may be the only solution to that problem, which would not be cheap, Anderson said. The total cost of the project could end up costing the city between $450,000 and $500,000, according to preliminary cost estimations.

The other problem in the park, and the more immediate concern of the city, is the gazebo, which has sat in the park for 25 years. Currently, the gazebo is riddled with rot damage, which Anderson said makes the structure unsafe and also unlikely to be able to be salvaged.

Several city council members expressed sadness that the gazebo could be demolished, but said they would support it, if it meant the park would be safer for Dowagiac citizens.

“We think it will be less expensive for us to buy a new [gazebo] than it will be for us to dismantle this, buy the individual parts we would need and put it back together,” Anderson said. “We could even buy the exact make and model we have now. … The only true historical significance of [the gazebo] is that it has been in the park for 25 years and has become a visual icon there, but it is readily replaceable.”

Before Beckwith Park was Beckwith Park, it was the site of Beckwith Theater, which was built in 1892 and opened in 1893. At the time, the theatre was considered to be the finest theater between Chicago and Detroit, according to newspaper reports. Despite this, the building was demolished in 1966, after it had sat vacant for several years.

Though the demolition of the Beckwith Theatre eventually allowed Beckwith Park to be established, it is also where the park’s problems began, according to Anderson.

It is the belief of Anderson and Steve Arseneau, director of the Dowagiac Area History Museum, that much of the rubble from the former Beckwith Theatre was never properly disposed of and still sits under Beckwith Park today, a conclusion the pair came to after examining photographs taken during the demolition.

“There are photos of bulldozers pushing down and going over the top of beams and rubble,” Anderson said. “That is something that people have been saying all along.”

Anderson and Arseneau said they believe the remnants of the Beckwith Theatre under the ground of the park is the culprit of the park’s settling issues.

“I’m no expert in construction,” Arsenaeu clarified. “But, I suspect that is contributing to the deterioration of the park. … When you leave things in a demolition site, it leaves empty pockets, especially when you are dealing with things like wood, which will eventually rot, which can cause the ground to settle.”

Anderson said that there have been no concrete plans made about the changes that will be made to Beckwith Park, saying that the project will be a long term one that will require a conversation not only between city leaders, but the community. He added that he understands that the park is dear to many in the community, who may be upset by the change, but that the city is going to do what it has to do to make the park safe.

“Our goal right now is getting everything safe for our citizens, and once we have everything out of there, then we can have a discussion about what we want the park to look like,” Anderson said. “This park is very near and dear to the city council and myself, too. This is not something we have been longing to do or want to do, it is something we have to do for the safety of the public. Immediately, we are taking steps to make sure everyone is safe and in the long term. We are going to take steps to restore it to make it the kind of place it has been for the last 30 years.”

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