Park Board considers the future of Marland Heights Park
WEIRTON – About 30 community members, 5th Ward Councilwoman Flora Perrone and two former mayors of the City of Weirton were in attendance as the Park Board discussed the future of Marland Height Park in the shelter that has become the centerpiece of the facility at Thursday’s regular meeting of the Weirton Board of Park & Recreation Commissioners.
Members of the Park Board reiterated throughout the meeting that Marland Heights Park remains a viable recreation outlet, is a featured facility, and the board intends to keep it that way.
“When I look around at this facility I’m disappointed,” Park Board Chairman Edwin J. Bowman said. “This is still a viable recreation outlet, but it needs improvements and upgrades. Unfortunately, without increased funding, we can’t complete those upgrades.”
Bowman and the other members of the Park Board agreed the Park Board administrative staff needs to be creative about finding funding sources for upgrades and needs to seek professional help in determining the best use of recreation dollars moving forward. To that end, the Park Board authorized Park Board Executive Director Coty Shingle to look into securing loans for necessary improvements at Marland Heights Park and contact consulting firms that specialize in recreation.
“I think the Park Board’s made a wise decision to cast a wider net in terms of securing funding,” Shingle said. “I also think the first step in that process is getting together with a consulting firm that can help create a shared vision for the future of recreation, not only here at Marland Heights Park, but throughout the city.”
Marland Heights Park and Pool opened in 1934 and has been faithfully serving the community since. The park has actually changed hands multiple times, first being operated and maintained by the Weirton Steel Corporation until the mid-1980’s when the City of Weirton took over ownership. The pool and park were under the direction of the Park Board until 2005 when pool operations were discontinued, but the park remained open and under the board’s direction until 2014. The Marland Heights Community Association (MHCA), seeking to re-open the pool, took over the operation and maintenance of the park through a lease and tried for a few years to raise funding toward that end before terminating the lease and returning the property to the Park Board’s care in 2018.
“We tried very hard to raise money and re-open the pool,” Iris Himmelrick, a former officer of the MHCA and current Park Board member, said. “We hired a consultant and the initial thought, in 2015, was that it would be feasible to re-open the pool, but when it came down to it, there was a lot more cost than anyone expected.
“It ended up that we needed almost $2 million to fix the pool – to make it operational, with no consideration for operating expenses. I put a lot of long hours into the effort, but we just could not get support for opening the pool.”
The shelters at Marland Heights Park remain busy locations for events of all kinds and are rented nearly every weekend throughout the summer. The large playground is the second-most utilized playground on the city’s roster of recreation facilities.
“I believe, and always have, that Marland Heights Park is the most beautiful outdoor facility we operate,” Shingle said. “It’s just a great setting for outdoor recreation or events.”
During the meeting Shingle made a presentation to those in attendance outlining the needs of the park, the financial situation facing the Park Board and its dependence on Weirton City Council for funding.
“A lot of people are not aware the Park Board is not a property owner,” Shingle said. “The Park Board is essentially a property manager. We operate recreation outlets for the City of Weirton, which is the registered owner all the recreation properties in the city.”
Bowman stated several times during the meeting that he appreciates City Council’s recent funding support for parks & recreation projects, specifically the repair of the south wall of the Weirton Millsop Community Center, which is expected to cost more than $500,000.00. Bowman also said previous councils passed up the opportunity to be a great help to the Park Board.
“When council passed the hotel/motel tax 10 or 12 years ago, they had an opportunity to increase funding to the Park Board,” Bowman said. “Had they done so then, the Park Board might’ve had as much as $1 million or $1.5 million more to be able to address some of its concerns.”
The Hotel/Motel Occupancy Tax, by West Virginia legislative law, can only be used to fund parks and recreation or convention and visitors’ bureaus (CVB). When City Council adopted the tax in the early 2000’s, it set aside half the hotel/motel tax revenue for the Top of West Virginia CVB and the other half for parks and recreation in Weirton. When the revenue was applied to the Park Board, City Council reduced the city’s annual allotment to parks & recreation by the amount of revenue gained in tax income and put it to use in other municipal spending without increasing the total allotment to parks & recreation.
“I know we have made this point before,” Bowman said, “but it stands without question that part of our current situation was created by that decision. Let me reiterate that it was not this City Council, but a previous council, that made that decision.”
Former City of Weirton Mayor Dean Harris was one of many citizens who made comment on the status and future of Marland Heights Park during the meeting.
“We never had the kind of money to work with that this council’s had,” Harris said. “It’s clear City Council needs to do something in the budget for the Park Board, every year, so the Park Board has the wherewithal to do things it needs to do.
“With the kind of budget dollars City Council’s working with right now, the money should be there to help the Park Board.”
Harris and Bowman, also a former Mayor of the City of Weirton, shared that their administrations operated on a budget of only around $9 million. City Council’s current fiscal year budget is around $20 million.
Councilwoman Perrone said she was in favor of helping the Park Board as much as possible and during her years residing on Marland Heights has developed a great fondness for the park.
“I from Weirton, all my life, but I’ve only lived on Marland Heights since 2004,” Perrone said. “The park was not a part of my childhood and it didn’t get to be a part of my children’s childhood as much as some of you, but we’ve had birthday parties and events here at the shelters and we love being here.
“I have a personal affinity for Marland Heights Park and I understand the value of it to our community. I’m excited about some of the plans the Park Board has for this park, and other facilities. I’ve seen the presentations and I can’t believe how much the Park Board has to care for and I’ve learned through behind-the-scenes conversations with other City Council members that they’re very supportive as well.”
The Park Board not only operates Marland Heights Park, but the Weirton Millsop Community Center, Starvaggi Memorial Pool & Park, Edwin J. Bowman Field, the Panhandle Rail Trail and 11 playgrounds throughout the city.
Park Board Member Deb Witkowski, a lifelong resident of Marland Heights, told the gathering that she felt there needed to be a sense of urgency to do something positive for the park.
“I grew up here like everybody else who’s here,” Witkowski said. “You can’t discount the importance of green space. If you look at the City of Weirton, this is prime property here. None of us want to see it go by the by, and if we don’t do something, or at least make a plan to do something, in the very near future, it’s going to continue to deteriorate.”
Nearly every resident in attendance was given an opportunity to speak and share ideas about what they thought would help guide the Park Board as it tries to adapt a vision for the future. A lot of ideas were shared about what amenities could be added to the park, including a spray zone, a deck hockey rink, a roller rink, a walking track, a dog park and quality restroom facilities. Residents even suggested the Park Board seek to add a recreation component to the existing Police and Fire Safety Service Fee, something that would take an act of City Council to accomplish. Bowman also suggested it might be time for City Council to enact and Occupation Tax that would have only people working in the City of Weirton footing the bill for increased funding needs in the city.
“I want to say thank you to everybody who came out tonight,” Perrone said. “I know this is an intrinsic part of our community, so your presence is greatly appreciated. There are a lot of great ideas here, so now the process of assessing the options and costs begins to determine the right course of action going forward.”
In other business, the Park Board agreed to give all its full-time employees a 7-percent pay raise to match the action City Council recently took on behalf of the Weirton Municipal Employees Union workers, so long as City Council approves providing the $17,000.00 needed to cover the pay increases.