Written by Bakersfield Magazine
Maybe it was the exhilaration you felt on the swings, or the eagerness with which you climbed up to a slide. Possibly it was the way a jungle gym became a battleship or fabulous mansion. But whatever it was, it’s a feeling or memory only made at a park. Parks play a big role in our lives and seem to always be there for us...but how?
The City of Bakersfield Recreation and Parks Department is the organization that knows the importance of play and they strive to give us beautiful places to do that every day.
Along with the planning and landscaping of all the roadsides and medians, “We really are the face of the city,” said Recreation and Parks Director Dianne Hoover. The department employs 147 full-time employees that work seven days a week to maintain the beauty of the 58 parks and the 137 miles of streetscapes. They have also been able to work very closely with the Economic and Community Development Department on the Central Park and Mill Creek projects.
How do these purveyors of play generate funding for so many community enriching projects? It is collected, saved, and budgeted by the department. Through general tax roll and residential park fees, the Recreation and Parks Department generates a majority of the funding for their projects. The Recreation and Parks Department also occasionally receives state grants to revitalize property that the city already owns, like they did for the Mesa Marin and Kern River Uplands projects. Another way that the department funds its projects and programs is through large corporate sponsorships. Sponsors like Bright House Networks have been key in creating wireless hotspots in the parks and San Joaquin Community Hospital helped continue the Movies in the Park Program after it had to be cut from the department’s budget.
The Recreation and Parks Department also offers numerous outdoor education programs. They have created programs for the disabled community to learn and play sports like tennis, softball, and basketball. People can even take classes in kayaking and fly fishing at McMurtrey Aquatics Center that include trips out to the Kern River to apply their newly-developed skills.
“We even are offering Zumba,” said Hoover, adding, “if it’s a craze and it’s out there, we will try to include it.”
Children have countless opportunities, year-round, to benefit from the department’s programming with a range of after-school activities like the Children’s Garden and Build-A-Bike programs. The community garden at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center teaches kids about the environment and healthy eating, as they adopt a plant and eventually harvest and learn how to prepare it.
The Build-A-Bike program teaches children how to repair and maintain a bicycle while also learning about bicycle safety. The Bakersfield Police Department donates recovered bicycles and when the child has demonstrated all their new skills, “they get to keep the bicycle, it becomes theirs,” explained Hoover.
You may recall the excitement of waiting in line for the diving board at the public pool or how “adult swim” felt like hours, but you cannon-balled right back in after the whistle, and yet again the Recreation and Parks Department is behind that, too.
Although the spray parks and pools are only open from May to September, McMurtrey Aquatic Center’s lap pool is open year-round offering programs like the 100 Mile Club, Aqua Conditioning, Jr. Life Guarding, and many more.
As much as people love to swim, the bike path is probably the most extensive (yet simplest) facility of the department. And by recent survey, it is by far the most used amenity in the entire city of Bakersfield. The bike path is 32 miles long and offers a unique outlet for recreation here in our city. The path has brought about countless running, walking, and bike clubs.
The department is also proud to have opened several new parks this year. On June 1, the new softball complex at Mesa Marin was unveiled and it features four lighted softball diamonds with concessions, restrooms, and shaded bleachers.
“Coming down the hill from 178, it’s a sea of green,” said Hoover. The Amateur Softball Association of America has already scheduled a national tournament for 2012.
Another major park completion was the Kern River Uplands project. It can be accessed from Chester Avenue or from the bike path, and is located next to Sam Lynn Ballpark. With a bridge across the canal, visitors can walk over from the ballpark to find six different overlooks that feature information about the wildlife and plant life, as well as fun facts about the railroad, canal, and river.
The department plans to add QR codes to the information displays so kids and adults can access more information with their smartphones. That information will change with the seasons. Because nature isn’t static, they want “to combine technology with the outdoor world,” explained Hoover. By creating more natural parks like the Kern River Uplands, the Recreation and Parks Department hopes to make nature interactive and fun.
And accessing information with a QR code will be faster than you think because many of the new parks, and a growing number of established ones, are being enabled with Wi-Fi powered by Bright House Networks. It’s another way that this department has paid close attention to what people in Bakersfield want and need from their parks.
With so many large park openings this year, the Recreation and Parks Department’s plan for the near future is to focus on completing more streetscapes and landscapes, as well as completing more work at Central Park and Mill Creek as new homes and businesses are built. Part of that work will be to redo the playground at Central Park, develop the Sister Cities gardens, and design and build small pocket parks around the new buildings.
One of the most exciting things that the department has been working on and will continue with is the building of the Sports Village. Eight lighted soccer fields have been completed with eight more on the way. This mammoth-sized sports park will also feature numerous softball diamonds, a stadium for both soccer and football, and that’s in addition to a well-designed park area, picnic shelters, walking paths, and a lake. The lake will feature water from the nearby state-of-the-art water treatment plant and serve to irrigate the many fields.
“The unique thing about the Sports Village is that it’s not a soccer complex; it’s not a football complex. It’s a sports village, so [people] will have the opportunity, when it’s completely built out, to have year-round, high-end use with multiple leagues or multiple large tournaments going on at any given time.” The Sports Village is being built in phases, when funding becomes available, so the project needs sponsorships to be completed.
AYSO has already shown interest in holding a state tournament with the possibility of a national tournament someday. Its convenient location is right off Taft Highway, in between I-5 and the 99 Freeway and is accessible from either direction. So the complex has the ability to bring in a lot of tourism from families traveling for sports, which will, in turn, provide tremendous financial support to our area as businesses seek to set up shop in such a highly-trafficked area.
Our Recreation and Parks Department goes above and beyond for the people of Bakersfield. It has received National Accreditation in which 156 different standards were reviewed against industry best practices and this department is only one of two in California that has been able to complete that process.
Parks and recreational amenities add a great deal of value to the city and are a tremendous boon not only for residents, but for people making the decision to relocate here.
“This is very much a family town,” said Hoover, explaining that families look for things they can do together when judging prospective cities. She also discussed the ways in which children learn leadership and social skills at parks through programs and “by just playing on a playground [children learn] sharing, imagination, and important lessons that come during childhood.”
Darin Budak, Assistant Director of the Recreation and Parks Department, added, “It’s about building community. We touch people through their entire life, whether it’s senior programs or peewee sports or stroller clubs for mothers.”
He explained that parks have historically been a place people go for solace. “It’s a place they feel comfortable; a place they can reconnect.” And in these trying economic times, city parks offer free activities and are easily accessible and fun for the whole family. There are numerous outlets for recreation and relaxation within the city limits. And if residents are happy, they become our city’s best promoters, telling friends and family from out of town how wonderful life in Bakersfield is.
These parks have additional economic benefits. From a financial standpoint, Hoover explained that parks help to stimulate economic development.
“Properties around a well-maintained park have higher values than those [with no park in the proximity].” And 2011 has also welcomed two new residential parks at Greystone and City in the Hills that will bring added value to the homes in those areas.
“To me [parks and recreation] is the life blood of the community,” said Hoover. “This city really supports its parks, and they really use their parks.”
Visit your neighborhood park...you won’t disagree.
Photos Courtesy City of Bakersfield Recreation and Parks Dept.
Article appeared in our 28-4 Issue - October 2011