2013-05-10 / Front Page

Passion for park evident

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – Residents of South Portland’s Sunset Park neighborhood told Parks and Recreation Director Rick Towle the run down Wilkinson Park Community Center symbolized the city’s years of neglect toward their area.

Now that the building is gone, bulldozed by city crews in March, Towle is hoping to start fresh with neighborhood residents.

About 25 Sunset Park residents attended a workshop in the South Portland Community Center on April 23 to talk about the future of the Wilkinson Park area now that the community center is gone.

The building had stood at the end of New York Avenue since 1950. It played host to neighborhood dances, birthday parties, baby showers and cribbage games until 2011, when it was closed to the public because of safety concerns. The city owned the building since 1994, when it was donated by the Wilkinson family.

Residents are still split on whether they want an enclosed structure to replace the one that just came down, or whether they would like to change to a smaller, cheaper, open-air patio space.

“I tried to talk to a lot of people, and I would love to say I found the grand consensus, but I couldn’t find any one thing,” said Matt Green, a Berwick Street resident and track and field coach for the city recreation department. “There were people who were adamant that they wanted a structure like the one that had just been there, but there were just as many people on the other side who like it open.”

Despite the split opinion, residents were able to decide on a way forward at the meeting. The parks and recreation department will start with what Towle called “basic” repairs, which include adding a new basketball court and garden plots, new bleachers, trail maintenance and removal of safety hazards such as old jersey barriers.

Then, the department plans to install an open-air structure where the community center used to stand, while leaving the option open to expand and enclose the space.

The exact design of that new structure is yet to be determined, but Towle envisions it as a spot families in the neighborhood can gather for picnics and other small events. He said its location would also make it possible for a parent to watch one child on the playground while another plays on the Little League field.

The structure would cost the city between $35,000 and $125,000, depending on the possible inclusion of a snack area or public restrooms. Towle said the department has about $36,000 available for Wilkinson Park upgrades. He has also submitted a request for an additional $60,000 pending the final adoption of this year’s proposed budget.

Residents of the neighborhood then plan to form a committee to work on the possible long-term goal of a new enclosed building. Towle estimated the cost of a larger, enclosed space at $245,000.

Although Sunset Park residents have not agreed on a vision for the future of the structure to replace the community center, they agreed citizen input about the future of the neighborhood was a strong starting point.

Ryan Edwards of Pennsylvania Avenue has lived in Sunset Park nearly his entire life. He was initially wary about the future of Wilkinson Park because of the city’s neglect in the past.

“We’re all here because we love our neighborhood. It felt for a little while it really wasn’t all that important,” Edwards said.

After the meeting, Edwards said he was willing to give Towle “the benefit of the doubt,” and he was pleased with the commitment the parks and recreation director showed to the neighborhood.

In the first hour of the community meeting, residents vented their frustration with parking problems Little League games have caused in spring and summer. Parking congestion and concern for safe passage of emergency vehicles caused the city council to institute “no parking” restrictions on parts of New York Avenue and Concord Avenue near the field.

Some residents worried the restrictions will push those cars onto other side streets. Others asked why all Little League games couldn’t be played across town at Wilkinson Park.

“Allowing the Little League to make the decision as to where they’re going to play is letting the tail wag the dog. Before the other field was closed we had a livable situation. Now it is not a livable situation,” said John Roberts, who lives across from the field.

But Towle reminded residents the Little League has taken an interest in the area that the city had not matched in the past. The Wilkinson family donated the land with the understanding it would remain as an open recreation space for the city’s children, and the Little League has held to that standard, Towle said.

Matt Green said he took the park for granted as a child, but has more appreciation for the Wilkinson family’s vision as an adult.

“We still have that open space, they didn’t sell it for condos or something else down there. The park’s getting some attention now and we’re seeing some progress. I look forward to seeing that progress going on,” Green said.

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