Pensacola residents have always been proud of their parks and recreation facilities. However, there are indications that the city is having trouble maintaining them at the same standards that locals have become accustomed to.
While the finances and maintenance of the Maritime Park and Veterans Memorial Park have made the headlines recently, other city parks are having problems with maintenance, safety and ADA compliance, but it hasn’t always been this way.
In January 2011, Pensacola Parks and Recreation won an Agency Excellence Award from the Florida Recreation & Park Association “for excellence in Parks and Recreation management” for activities during the previous year.
Since the award-worthy year of 2010, the city government has seen its first strong mayor take office, multiple leadership changes at city hall, and budgetary woes that appear to have impacted the city’s award-winning park system.
From broad issues—such as recommendations made by the Parks and Recreation Board never being presented to the Pensacola City Council—to the more specific—slow response to mending fences at a westside ballpark—residents are questioning how to get the city to respond to their concerns.
On a Mission in Miraflores Park
Barbara Albrecht has been entrenched in the process of requesting city building maintenance for two years. As the president of the Bream Fishermen Association (BFA), Albrecht has boiled down her wish list for improvements to one specific goal for the 79-year-old historic city building in which the group meets: “I just want raised toilets.”
The BFA, a group primarily dedicated to volunteer water-quality monitoring and environmental outreach, meets in a small brick building located in Miraflores Park, at the intersection of East Belmont Street and 17th Avenue. Miraflores Park is one of the 94 parks that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department—housed within the Department of Neighborhood Services—oversees.
The small brick building was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) for the local Boy Scouts of America, who utilized it for several decades. By the late 1960s, the building had fallen into disrepair. The BFA made an agreement with the city of Pensacola whereby they would restore the building in exchange for using it as a meeting and storage area.
“It was a handshake, a gentlemen’s agreement,” Albrecht explained. The Fly Fishers of Northwest Florida and Pensacola Speckled Trout Club also regularly use the building and park for their meetings and activities.
As the building and the BFA membership aged, updates to the building were needed. The members—many of whom now range from their 60s to 90s—were not physically able to continue maintaining the building as they previously had, including replacing the roof and other structural work.
“I don’t think I’m asking for anything that’s outrageous,” said Albrecht of her requests. “If you look at the grab bar going into the building, it’s a pipe. It was installed by the BFA so that they could pull themselves up.” The Fly Fishers even constructed a ramp so a member in a wheelchair could attend meetings.
In 2010, the BFA was notified that money from the city’s Pennies for Progress tax were available for repairs to the building. The three regular user groups identified approximately $55,000 worth of needed work.
“It sounds like a huge amount, but with an old facility there is a certain amount of maintenance that needs to be done in order just to take care of the place,” said Albrecht. “The city had kind of neglected that over the years. Charlie Morgan was the city voice that kept it on the radar.”
Morgan, a manager in the Public Works Department had coordinated repairs to the building and had a long-standing relationship with the BFA.
Albrecht took over leadership of the BFA in late 2011. No work had been done on the building during Mayor Aston Hayward’s first year. Parks and Recreation director Dave Flaherty resigned in May 2012, shortly after instructing the user groups to vacate the Miraflores building so renovations could begin.
During the summer of 2012, over $19,000 was spent with a contractor to replace the floors and leaking chimney. The BFA was allowed to move back into the building before their August 2012 meeting.
Albrecht, who had visited the building weekly during those months, quickly pointed out that the air conditioning unit hadn’t been replaced nor had the basement or bathrooms been repaired. The work crew left a note on a bathroom mirror indicating additional work was needed, as the plumbing was backed up.
“Those guys did what they were asked to do, and they were not asked to do what we expected. There was a disconnect between the city and the contractors,” Albrecht stated.
Shortly thereafter Councilman Larry B. Johnson gave $5,000 of his discretionary funds to purchase an air conditioner for the building. Copied on some of Albrecht’s e-mails to city staff, “There was an immediate need,” Johnson saw, and gave his funds to expedite the process.
Brian Cooper became director of Neighborhood Services in September 2012. Albrecht began attending meetings of the Parks and Recreation Board to discuss the quality of work of the repairs and the number of items still left unaddressed.
Albrecht was dismayed to learn that the board’s recommendation to put the issue before the city council was superseded by city staff. The city council appoints the nine members of the Parks and Recreation Board and the council has to approve all expenditures the board might make.
In January, the board voted to bring the ADA compliance of the building before the council, but learned during the next meeting that the item didn’t make the council agenda because staff feared the council might vote to demolish the building.
“Brian Cooper says, ‘We, the city staff decided not to bring it to the city council,’” Albrecht stated. “I was so emotional when I left that building, saying, ‘You can’t even follow your own rules. What’s the point of even meeting?’”
On Tuesday, Aug. 6, the IN posted excerpts from e-mails between Albrecht, Cooper, and other city employees and council members on Rick’s Blog. The next day, before the BFA’s monthly meeting, city crews installed grab bars in the bathrooms. Sinks, door knobs, and the exterior light over the entrance were also replaced. Albrecht recently learned that further repairs—including raised toilets—are scheduled in the coming weeks using another $5,000 of Johnson’s discretionary funds.
“We are going to do everything we can to bring all of our facilities up and get them ADA compliant,” Johnson said.
Terry Wayne East Park is located between North J and West Gadsden streets. Having been sparsely used for a number of years, Coach Anthony Tibbs made the park in 2010 the home of the Pensacola Pirates, a youth league baseball team and part of the city’s westside baseball program.
“For the most part, it just really needs to be brought up to the standards of quality fields that they have at other parks now,” Tibbs said of the park, a single baseball diamond currently utilized for baseball and soccer practice. “We’ve talked about it but we were never told why. I don’t know if it’s funding or it’s not a big enough program.”
In the last season, the Pirates—ages 10 through 12—won approximately 70 of 85 games and placed second in the local youth World Series. “We practice on that field every day and I’m very thankful for the city letting us use that park, because it helped my team grow,” Tibbs stated. “It really helped our performance.”
The Pirates’ success has resulted in the opening of the concession stand for the first time in years. The building also houses restrooms, which need maintenance from time to time, but Tibbs reported that the city has been responsive to calls to repair toilets and drag the field.
“It’s a dirt field and it’s not really, really bad, but we’ve got the fence around there that needs to be repaired,” Tibbs said of his primary unaddressed maintenance request. “Some parts of the fence are rolled up on the ground … We haven’t had anyone hurt down there, but it could become a safety hazard, the more kids we have down there.”
Though the team plays in tournaments, they are not able to host them at Terry Wayne Park due to the quality of the field, though this year they hosted games at the park for the first time.
“Terry Wayne Park could actually be an awesome park,” Tibbs said, remembering his childhood playing there, “It needs a lot of work done, compared to other parks on the eastside of town that are run by the city.”
“We’re trying to really build Terry Wayne Park back up to the caliber it used to be 10, 15, 20 years ago,” the coach stated.
MOUs: The Wave of the Future?
With shrinking budgets and bureaucratic challenges, it seems increasingly user groups are being courted as potential parks facilities managers, which is fine by Albrecht.
“Our group has taken care of that building for a long time,” said Albrecht, who is eager for a resolution. “If we develop an MOU or MOA with the city, I have no problem taking over all of their responsibilities and they will never have to look back again.”
Tibbs said he has been speaking with the city to form a Memorandum of Usage (MOU) through his non-profit, where they do small-scale maintenance. “We’ll be doing the light work,” Tibbs said of the arrangement after his group is properly insured, which he is in the process of completing.
“Hopefully if we build the field up it will help build the neighborhood up, which is what we need,” said Tibbs.
Neither Cooper nor Public Works’ Director Derrik Owens were available for comment for this story, out sick and on leave, respectively. While both are relatively new to their positions, it is a hope that they will work toward a more responsive and clear system for addressing citizen-reported maintenance issues in city parks.
Until then, Albrecht said, “I will continue to be a squeaky wheel.”