Inside JCPRD: What does it take to get parks ready for spring?

Park Worker Kelly Loomis plants season flowers at Heritage Park.

By David Markham

After the winter we’ve just had, the upcoming change in the seasons will be welcomed by most of us, but it doesn’t come without considerable and often unnoticed efforts from park maintenance staff who will soon start transitioning JCPRD parks from winter back to spring.

JCPRD’s Parks & Golf Courses Division has set April 15 as the target date for getting water turned back on for all park restrooms and drinking fountains. This is weather dependent and includes any work necessary to fix leaks or broken water lines that show up once the water is turned back on.

“Turning the water on is always one of the challenges especially with the cold streak that we went through this year,” said Southeast Region Park Manager Eddie Coffey. “We are never sure how much damage the cold weather has caused and what we will need to repair.”

Coffey added that in park regions like his that include amenities such as the Heritage Park Soccer Complex with irrigation systems, the water gets turned on even earlier to get those fields ready for league play.

Of course there are other deadlines and work to be done as well. Weddings at the Mildale Farm rental property begin as early as March. The end of March is the target date for getting fertilizer and preemergent herbicides applied. Hundreds of seasonal staff are needed for the summer months, and hiring for these positions usually takes place in April and May.

Summer hours of  5 a.m. to 11 p.m. go into effect March 1 for many Johnson County Park and Recreation District parks. These summer hours will stay in effect through Oct. 31.

“For Big Bull Creek Park, I think the hardest thing to get back into is the opening of the park gates at 5 a.m. and knowing I have staff in early,” said Southwest Region Park Manager Dan Haase. “Last year was the first time we actually had a seasonal person who wanted that shift and stayed the whole year with us. It worked fantastically and took many stresses off of full-time staff. This year it’s looking like we will have five full-time staff back on opening gates.”

Grape hyacinths bloom through the snow in a planting in Antioch Park.

In 2020, JCPRD parks saw summer-level attendance as early as April because with the pandemic and local shutdowns, the parks were some of the few places people could still get out and practice physical distancing.

“With COVID, the expectation is that 2021 will mirror 2020,” Superintendent of Parks & Golf Courses Bill Maasen said of anticipated park attendance.

“Every year brings new challenges,” added Coffey. “Last year was just keeping up with the additional cleanings, more trash, and more visitation. It does seem that the visitation has not slowed down. It is nice to see more people use the trail system. We will be anticipating the same as last year.”

“We’re not sure what this year will bring, but we will continue to provide excellent service no matter the number of users,” said Central Region Assistant Park Manager Chuck Dvorak.

The public can help out park staff by being respectful of park and trail conditions, and not using the trails when they’ve been closed due to the weather.

“This time of the year can make or break us depending on how the public treats the grounds,” Haase said. “We are trying to grow grass, trying to keep things clean, and simply trying to keep up with demand. In saying that – we LOVE to see people enjoying their parks. It’s very rewarding for us when we feel like we are putting out a good product.”

While there’s a lot of work to be done, this is still a favorite time of the year for some park staff.

“Spring creates a new energy in staff; it’s a new start which allows us to refocus, and improve on the things we want to see get better,” Haase said. “Watching the vegetation come on and the colors start to green up is refreshing.”

Coffey echoed this when he said “I love seeing the trees leaf out and the grass to start greening up. I just get a renewed energy to see everything coming out of hibernation.”

“The best part of going from Winter to Spring are the spring ephemeral flowers,” added Cedar Niles Senior Park Worker Ginger Werp.

With all this talk about getting ready for spring, don’t imagine for a moment that park workers have been sitting idle over the winter waiting for the weather to turn warm again!

“We do the majority of our tree work in the winter, we go through each piece of equipment and get it ready for the coming season, and we are responsible for snow removal at several locations,” Dvorak said.

“Winter is a time to check and go through our equipment to make sure it’s as ready as it can be when the new season starts,” Haase said. “We clean facilities, reorganize, do trail and tree audits, discuss the things we would like to see improve for the new season, and push snow. Some of us do what we can to keep our (all-season) restrooms open year-round, and this year with the cold weather, that has been challenging. We make small improvements to different sites, and have been doing a lot cedar reclamation with our forestry head, burning brush piles, and we still have some controlled burning left to do.”

“Winter is also a great time for us to build benches, picnic tables, and any welding projects that need to be completed,” Coffey added. “I have been in this type of work for over forty years and most people think all we do is mow grass. I usually give them a quick rundown of what we do. I tell them that they are correct about us mowing grass, but I explain some of the other skills that we use. I tell them we are also carpenters, electricians, plumbers, welders, certified playground inspectors, certified chemical applicators, certified arborists, horticulturists, roofers, painters, and everything else that is related to a park. I also tell them that the people in this field love what we do and that a lot of our maintenance staff have 20 to 40 years of experience.”