City leaders discuss fate of Island Park

Published 7:52 am Wednesday, April 10, 2019

NILES — Since last year’s historic flood in February, Island Park has been unusually quiet.

A damaged bridge and locked gate have obstructed residents from setting foot on the city property, where a desolate playground, uprooted trees and more than 2 feet of sediment remain, indicating the lasting grip of the high waters.

Monday night, city leaders discussed the fate of the park during a committee of the whole meeting and whether decommissioning or restoring the park in some capacity would be worth the expense.

City administrator Ric Huff and Public Works Director Joe Ray outlined options for the council’s consideration and asked them to provide direction so that officials can take action.

Huff and Ray said the city had discussed three potential options:

• Full park restoration at a cost of roughly $200,000 to $250,000

• Partial park restoration that would include repairing the bridge, removing play equipment and leaving most of the park as natural habitat — costing approximately $200,000

•Decommissioning the park by disabling the bridge and leaving the gate locked — a cost has not been determined, but the city would have to pay for an improved security gate and to remove the play equipment

Cost factor was among the biggest sticking points for city leaders when discussing park restoration. While some insurance money is available, potentially $48,000 to $70,000 for bridge restoration, the rest of the cost would come from the city’s general fund.

Huff added that the park has frequent issues with flooding, though February’s historic high waters caused some of the worst damage. In the past nine years, he said the park had flooded 12 times. Each time the park floods, the city spends approximately $3,000 to $5,000 to replace ground mulch that washes away from the play area, Huff said.

“Really the core financial question is: is this really where we should be putting money into something that is repeatedly being destroyed on some level or repeatedly needing remediation on some level?” Huff said.

Some city leaders questioned whether the funds could better be applied to other resources.

Council member John DiCostanzo said it could be beneficial to use the funds spent on Island Park to renovate parks that he observed to be more popular, in his 30 years as a west side resident.

“I’ve personally been to that [Island Park] twice on my bike,” DiCostanzo said. “I have grandkids and have never taken them to that park to play —  I take them to Riverfront because the play equipment is better.”

DiCostanzo said he preferred the option to leave the park open, but let it return to a more natural state and remove the play equipment. Though, he noted, residents in the Fourth Ward might utilize the park more often and value it more.

DiCostanzo said he had not heard any resident complaints about the park being closed, but Mayor Nick Shelton and council member Jessica Nelson said that they had heard from several constituents. 

However, Shelton said residents might not want to bear the cost of repairs.

“As a Fourth Ward resident with kids, I ask myself, ‘would I be willing to pay for the cost myself?’ Shelton said. “As a Fourth Ward resident, I would not want to pay that cost as a resident.”

VandenHeede said he did not agree with the proposed idea to lock up the park. He supported the partial park restoration idea.

“If we have a bridge, it should be usable,” VandenHeede said. “I couldn’t justify $200,000 plus to restore the island.”

At past meetings, the council members had discussed working with construction students from Southwestern Michigan College to restore the bridge as a class project. Huff said that Community Development Director Sanya Vitale explored this option and it was ultimately determined not to be feasible.

According to Huff, by the time students would be bused to the area and back, they would have only a short amount of time to work on the bridge. He added that there are also concerns about novice carpenters repairing a bridge that has to support heavy equipment needed for park restoration, which could cause a liability.

Other ideas included restoring the bridge and leaving the gate locked until more funds are available to repair the park.

Following the meeting, Huff said city officials would continue to research options for the park.