Park-goers lobby for volunteer efforts to keep Bidwell Park kids’ facility open
Some things are just downright sacred in Chico, including, of course, Bidwell Park. Last week’s announcement that hours and access to the park were getting reduced due to budget cuts triggered a strong reaction, particularly in response to the four-day-a-week closure of the Caper Acres kids’ playground in Lower Bidwell Park.
Public Works Director Ruben Martinez is the contact name on the press release announcing the reduced hours and access. He said his office has received many emails expressing disappointment and frustration, and while there are talks in the works regarding whether volunteers could be used to help keep Caper Acres open, Martinez said those efforts aren’t as simple as one might think.
“I talked with some lead staff this morning and said that maybe Caper Acres is not where we put volunteers because it’s going to be nasty work,” he said. “Maybe we could look at our work altogether and say, ‘What can we shave off that’s frankly easier for volunteers to do, so we can focus on the nastier stuff?’”
The city’s efforts to balance its $4.8 million budget deficit led to the recent reduction in park services. The Parks and Street Trees divisions’ budgets took a hit of $500,000. According to the city, the cuts resulted in the elimination of three park workers and four tree workers, as well as the elimination of a seasonal park-ranger position.
“With less people,” a press release says, “the Parks Division unfortunately will not have the resources to provide the high-quality level of service to maintain all of the many Bidwell Park facilities (cleaning, repairing the permanent restrooms, repairing irrigation systems, mowing, and inspecting Caper Acres playground apparatus, etc.) on a seven-day-a-week basis.”
“We looked at the services that we could guarantee on a daily basis—that is, day in and day out,” Martinez said. “People say we could have phased it in or reduced it slowly over summer. Unfortunately, our [laid-off] staff goes away as of today [Monday, July 8].
“People asked, ‘Why in the middle of summer?’ Well, that is when the new budget kicks in, and it doesn’t include [funding for] all those employees or additional funding for a contract to maybe deal with a private firm [for park maintenance].”
Martinez said he is not surprised by the reaction from the public.
“It’s important to acknowledge that there is a lot of disappointment all the way around for both the public and the city employees,” he said. “We just don’t have the staff to be there as we have been in the past.”
As a result, the reduced staff must focus its attention on days of peak usage, which are Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The overall park will remain open seven days a week with access by car limited to the Upper Park entrance at Wildwood Avenue, and the Fourth Street entrance to Lower Park. Entrances for pedestrians, equestrians and bicyclists will stay open all week.
In the wake of the announcement, an online petition titled “Help Save Caper Acres!” had attracted 2,578 signatures by late Tuesday (July 9). Of course, the signatures carry no legal weight and act only as a show of support for a cause. Verifying the validity of the signatures is not an option.
The second name on the list is “Dr. toby schindelbeck, CA.” That is the name of the former Chico business owner and one-time City Council candidate who moved to Idaho earlier this year. Most who include comments on the petition lament the closing of Caper Acres and recall memories of playing in the park. Some point fingers at the City Council, whose only role in the closure was adopting a budget with the financial cuts recommended by the city manager and administrative-services director.
Still, the online petition says, “At this point the most overwhelming issue being addressed is that the Chico City Council made a decision that is not taking into consideration the needs & wants of their constituents by whom they were elected. They also made the decision without obviously thinking that Caper Acres is HEAVILY used during the summer.”
Martinez explained the scope of the work city employees must do during peak summer hours to keep the facility open. He said they spend anywhere between three to six hours each day in the Caper Acres area alone.
“The first thing they have to do is go in and run out the night campers—any hangers-on still in the park who have jumped the fence, been there overnight and are using the facilities. Then we have to do cleanup around the outside, and then a give safety inspection on all the equipment. Then we go in and clean the restrooms and make repairs.”
The reduced staff cannot devote that much time to maintaining Caper Acres, he said. As such, community support and volunteer efforts are going to be important going forward.
A Facebook page called “Caper Acres Volunteers” has been created by a woman named Abigail Lopez. She and Martinez have plans to meet once she gets her volunteer group together.
On the Sunday before the reduced hours went into effect, Sandra Barton and her two grandchildren, Colten and Ashton Kessler, visited Caper Acres. It was their second visit to the park that week.
Barton said she is a volunteer for Park Watch, which, according to the city of Chico website, is made up of citizens who “work for the benefit of Bidwell Park, the visitors, wildlife and trails. Park Watchers act as ambassadors of the park by providing visitors with information and advising park staff about damage, hazards, vandalism, and any concerns they encounter while in the park.”
During her time volunteering, Barton noted how she’s seen some of the nastier park activities.
“The young families that use the park are being displaced by transients,” she said. “We give our time and are contributing members of society. The transients and homeless make it unsafe. Closing the park is not going to help. It’s a safety issue, and we see extreme vandalism. There is no one-sentence solution. It’s a larger problem, and we need more staff to handle the volunteers.”
Martinez said options will remain open for future park operations.
“We’re going to continue to analyze our routines and change them if needed,” he said. “We’ve sketched out a routine, but it’s a draft plan that we can always make work better as we move forward.”
Martinez realizes the public is skeptical in these times of reduced services via department budget cuts.
“One of the sentiments out there is that this is grandstanding,” he said. “It isn’t. It was just a strategic cut in the overall scheme of all of the park facilities, and all the work that needs to be done to get Caper Acres ready by Friday.”