City Council approves parks plan, supports River Bend Trail

The Merrill Common Council last Tuesday approved the city’s 2013-1018 Five-Year Outdoor Recreation Plan. The plan, developed by North Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (NCWRCP) under the direction of the city Park & Recreation Department, will be used to identify new projects for development and existing facilities in need of refurbishing. The plan enables the city to be eligible for competitive federal and state outdoor recreation grant money that typically pays half the cost of each project.
Approval of the plan came after much public input. Two visioning sessions were held in September and October 2012 to engage the public. In addition, two public hearings were held in January and February 2013, with more than 40 people attending each hearing.
“This is the third (five-year plan) I’ve been involved in and it’s incomparable,” said city Parks & Recreation Director Dan Wendorf. “We’ve had spectacular input and feedback from the community on this.”
The city owns and maintains approximately 281 acres of parkland, plus an additional 920 acres in the Merrill Memorial Forest, located about 6 miles north of the city. Long known as the City of Parks, Merrill features 13 city parks.
Two visioning sessions were held in September and October 2012 to engage the public. Out of those sessions, a number of priorities for the parks system were identified, including: link pedestrian/bike trails, build restroom facilities, continue to upgrade athletic facilities, improve communication between parks user groups and the city, increase Park & Recreation Department resources, and develop an effective marketing plan.
The plan lays out specific projects that may be budgeted over the next five years. All listed projects may not be completed. Projects noted include:
2013-construct dog park, Lions Park restroom ADA remodel, begin work on Aquatic Center development, begin work on River Bend Trail development, begin implementation of Bike Route Designation routes, Riverside Park trail improvements, Gebert Park trail improvements, develop master plan for Normal Park, new infield at Athletic Park.
2014- continue work on Aquatic Center development, sandblast & repaint Riverside Park shelter, construct restroom facility at Normal Park, begin implementation of master plan for Normal Park, construct restroom facility at Prairie Trails Park, install lights on varsity softball field at MARC, continue River Bend trail development, irrigation to athletic fields at MARC, continue Bike Route Designation routes, emergency exit route established at MARC.
2015- lights on varsity soccer field at MARC, explore curling capabilities at Smith Center, improvements/addition to Riverside Park disc golf course, restroom facility by MARC adult ball fields, new lights at Athletic Park, finish and open new Aquatic Center, finish River Bend Trail from Center Ave to Council Grounds, continue Bike Route Designation routes, continue implementation of Normal Park Master Plan, construct basketball courts at MARC.
2016- begin working establishment of River Bend Trail as State Trail, begin working on connectivity of Bearskin/Hiawatha State Trails to Mountain Bay State Trail via newly constructed River Bend Trail, new field lights at Ott’s Park, continue Bike Route Designation routes, continue implementation of Normal Park Master Plan.
2017- repave parking lot at Stange Park, lagoon bridge replacements at Stange Park, construct meeting/banquet “4-season” room above community room in Smith Center, continue Bike Route Designation routes, continue implementation of Normal Park Master Plan, trail expansion at Prairie Trails.
2018- install lights at Lions Park baseball complex, City Forest road and trail improvements, construct visitor center at City Forest, build new shelter with Council Grounds and WDNR along joint trail on south end of MARC, re-stain/seal Kitchenette restroom building.
Inclusion in the plan does not guarantee any project will be completed in the specified year, or at all. But, being noted in the plan does make each project eligible for state or federal funds.
Wendorf said the Parks & Recreation department will complete as many projects as budgeting allows.
“These ideas have to be in there for us to be considered for funding,” he said, “but they don’t have to be done.”
Of 26 projects noted in the 2008-2013 plan, about half will be completed.
As the plan lays out, Wendorf would like to see continued upgrades and improvements to athletic fields which will allow the city to attract more tournaments. Also, the process of making all facilities ADA accessible will continue.
“We’ve made some strides on that and we need to finish up so we’re welcoming everybody,” Wendorf said.
Long-term projects that will get underway this year include planning for the River Bend Trail and a replacement facility for the outdoor pool. The city has budgeted some money to get started on the pool plans this year.
“We’re working with a consultant to figure out where we can do it and what it will look like,” Wendorf said.
The River Bend Trail received a great deal of attention throughout the plan process. The River District Development Foundation of Merrill is pursuing plans to utilize abandoned railroad bed to develop a trail from downtown to Council Grounds State Park. The foundation is about to embark on a $1 million fund raising campaign to pursue the River Bend Trail. Having the trail included in the city’s recreation plan opens the door for grant funding.
The Common Council last Tuesday passed a resolution of support for the River Bend Trail project. Development of the trail would be a cooperative effort of the city and the foundation, with the foundation raising the needed funds.
Wendorf said he’s pleased to have a dedicated and organized group such as the River District Development Foundation involved in the project.
“I think with the amount of help and passion the River District group has they’re going to see things through,” he said.

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