In 2009, Frederick’s elected leaders bought the 136-acre Hargett Farm property along Butterfly Lane with the goal of developing the site into a regional park. Seven years later, still no park, but there’s been a lot of idling.
City aldermen declined last week to either accept or reject a $98.5 million proposed development plan for the site, balking at the plan’s particulars — a sports complex complete with 11 multipurpose athletic fields and a 4,000-seat stadium, a 60,000-square-foot indoor swimming center, a water park, a festival area, a 5K trail, a conservation area, playgrounds, landscaping, picnic areas and five parking lots — and at a price that rivals the cost of the downtown Carroll Creek flood control and linear park project.
The consultant, Laurel-based planning and landscape architecture firm G.E. Fielder & Associates, estimates the city could generate about $2.8 million annually once the property is developed — with the bulk of the revenue coming from the proposed stadium and swim center — but that amount remains about $500,000 less than the $3.3 million it would cost to operate the park each year.
City aldermen had hoped that by hiring a consultant they’d be demonstrating they were serious about moving forward with the development of a property that has largely been left untended for nearly a decade. Instead, the consultant offered up so many bells and whistles that it became more for city officials to dither over — should they approve a plan even if certain parts of it never make it off the drawing board? Should they move forward with building a natatorium now that the YMCA intends to open a pool in Urbana? Should the city wait until it receives interest from the private sector in partnering up on some projects? Is there sufficient demand for a stadium? And where is the money going to come from to pay for all of this? Ultimately, they decided that in order to move forward they had to eliminate many of the plan’s details.
This leaves them about where they were before they hired the consultant, just $247,784 poorer. Not to mention the debt payment on the city’s $18 million purchase, which comes to about $1.5 million a year.
While it might be tempting at this point to ask if the city erred eight years ago in buying property that it had no plan for what it wanted to do with, we think the city did the right thing. As Frederick continues to urbanize, the need for open space and parkland in the years ahead will only increase. Residents should consider the purchase as an investment for the future, for their children and grandchildren, just as amenities secured through the investments made by previous Frederick residents are available now for current residents to enjoy.
That said, we think city public works director Zack Kershner has the right idea — city aldermen should have approved the consultant’s plan, which established a good set of guidelines that they can refer to — move forward with the parts of it that are immediately doable and leave as conceptual the parts that aren’t. While the plan offered options for a multiphase build-out that started with the festival grounds and ended with the sports fields, there’s no reason city officials couldn’t rearrange those phase-ins based on demand, or as interest emerges from private partners.
Frankly, we liked some of the swing-for-the-fences amenities in the consultant’s plan. Frederick already abounds in walking trails, picnic areas and playgrounds for tots; what it needs are swimming pools and dedicated ball fields (although, to be honest, we’re not crazy about the 4,000-seat stadium — the only real dud in an otherwise solid concept), and we think the city should look at how to make those parts of the concept a reality.
In the meantime, the city took an important first step earlier this year when it approved a bond re-funding that would pave the way for using private partnerships to help finance the park’s development, and city officials are right to budget for the road realignment and improvements around Md. 180, which is expected to cost about $2.8 million.
Maybe now is a good time to remind city aldermen that last month was the birth month of President Teddy Roosevelt, whose vision for preservation helped establish the National Park Service. In his 1913 autobiography, Roosevelt cites a bit of sage wisdom from Virginia’s Squire Bill Widener: “Do what you can with what you’ve got where you are.”