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Eastgate, north parks are city priority
Parks master plan reviewed by supportive Planning Commission
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A young runner jobs past Marie Neel Park at Boothe and Helen Perry roads on Monday afternoon. Not much is offered in the park and the city wants to possibly add a dog park and other amenities so that the park is utiiized by families more than it currently is. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Lions, Eastgate, Marie Neel and the Ceres River Bluff Regional parks should be completed before the city looks to build additional parks, outlines a new Parks Masterplan which was approved by the Ceres Planning Commission on Monday evening.

The plan, which next goes to the Ceres City Council also calls for:

• At least one dog park in Ceres where dogs can frolic with their owners;

• Completion of the pedestrian and bike trail to link the parks together;

• Adding play structures, shade structure, benches and barbecue pits to Neel Park just west of Sam Vaughn Elementary School;

• Encouragement of a "Friends of Ceres Parks" program to help financially support Ceres' parks.

The plan takes inventory of each of Ceres' 13 parks and their amenities.

The city has not developed much of Neel Park and done nothing to develop Eastgate and Lions parks. The city owns about 7.5 acres of the undeveloped 10-acre Eastgate Park site located east of Eastgate Boulevard and south of Hatch Road. For about a decade the city has owned the 10-acre Lions Park site on River Road between Central and Richland avenues but done nothing to develop it in an area that is underserved by parks.

City Engineer Daryl Jordan told the commission that the city believes that Neel Park would be the best location to build Ceres' first-ever dog park. However, there is the possibility of constructing one in the city-owned right-of-way basin located just south of Whitmore Avenue between Railroad Avenue and Highway 99.

Commissioner Couper Condit said he preferred a dog park at Neel Park rather than close to a noisy freeway.

Chad Kennedy, the consultant with O'Dell Engineering who assisted the city with the parks master plan, recommends that the city add more features to its existing parks.

"You have a few parks that are just basins of grass and those are really not supporting the Parks and Recreation standard that the city of Ceres has in mind of its citizens," said Kennedy.

He said that besides the dog park, Neel Park should have children's playground structure similar to what was recently installed at Sam Ryno Park on the west side of Ceres, tennis or basketball courts, a barbecue area and shade structure. Ideas for Eastgate Park include bocce ball and horseshoe courts, basketball court, a climbing wall, picnic facilities and community garden.

Kennedy acknowledged that funding will be an issue and recommended that the city look into special financing districts, bonds/park districts, program fees, establishing business partnerships as well as setting up a Friends of the Park group.

"I think it's a great goal that we have to complete something before we start something else - complete Lions and Eastgate," said Condit. "We need to complete those parks before we start the other 10 parks."

When he asked if the city should prioritize the incomplete parks in order of first to last, Kennedy suggested that the city may not wish to do so because of funding that might become available for a park site not on the priority list.

Jordan said the city has about $2 million in developer fees for park development but cautioned the city needs to "spread that out as best we can and leverage that with what funding we get."

Condit said Lions seems like a top priority since Ceres has few parks north of Hatch Road.

The city received input from the community in late 2014 and early 2015 to reflect on strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and challenges of Ceres parks program. A total of 103 members of the public attended those meetings. Some of those key findings were that strengths include the new soccer complex at River Bluff and the Costa Ball Fields at Smyrna Park. There was community belief that the lower bluff of River Bluff Regional Park will be a positive amenity for its educational and natural characteristics when fully developed. Another strength mentioned is the joint use agreement with Ceres United School District, such as the city's aquatics program held at Ceres High School.

However, the community feels there is a need for facilities and programs to target childhood obesity and a lack of walking trails, multi-generational play opportunities, and an overall lack of connection to the outdoors as major challenges. Ceres also falls short with tennis courts, aquatics and basketball courts.

The public also expressed fear of crime as a deterrent for visiting parks but City Manager Toby Wells said on Monday that there is no evidence to support the perception that parks are unsafe.

A cultural divide is another problem facing the Ceres Parks & Recreation Division. Ceres has a 57.9 percent Latino population but the city has lacked programming and materials available in Spanish.

The report notes that Ceres also could use more diverse amenities within parks, such as water play ("splash pad") elements, features highlighting culture and art, and a wider selection of exercise and play equipment for different user ages and abilities.

There is community consensus that city staffing is low and that there need to be more focused marketing and community outreach campaigns.