Orion Twp. Parks & Rec. director discusses millage, upcoming projects

By Jim Newell

Review Editor

In 2018, residents approved a five-year, 1-mill parks millage, with 57 percent of voters supporting the millage for the Orion Township Parks & Recreation Department.

Since that time, the parks department has been implementing a five-year maintenance and improvements plan, just as they laid out when asking for the millage.

“We have used every single dime of the millage money wisely and for capital outlay improvement maintenance projects. That’s what we told the community (we were going to do). We told the community that we were looking for an enhancement of our recreational resources. Not just to maintain, but an enhancement. And that’s exactly what it was,” said Parks and Rec. Director Aaron Whatley.

The township originally proposed a project and maintenance list from 2019-2023, and Whatley said the parks and recreation department will update residents on how the millage money is being spent and what projects have been completed.

“If the residents want to keep an eye out in February. We should have a 1-2 page document that shows what we’ve done in 2019. We’re going to be calling it our report card,” Whatley said. “Everyone can expect a report card on the parks department on a yearly basis, on what we’ve done with your tax dollars, and what we plan to do for the following year.”

Residents can check Orionparks.com for parks and recreation updates.

“In 2019, we hit the ground running and made tons of capital outlay improvements, much-needed repairs that have been put aside for years and years – and we’ll do that for the next four years,” Whatley said. “We were very successful this year. Even though construction costs and material costs were ridiculously high, we were able to cut in some areas and still accomplish what we told the community we were going to do.”

2019 projects

Construction prices came back higher than expected, but the department was still able to largely accomplish what it had planned with some project juggling and trimming.

“Just construction costs, it’s crazy. But we were still able to accomplish what we told the taxpayers we would,” Whatley said.

The handicapped accessible pathway was installed at Wildwood Amphitheater (originally estimated at $40,000).

“That’s an accessible pathway from the top of the hill all the way to the stage,” Whatley said. “That came in way over budget, but we were able to consolidate. We had money in the budget to build a storage facility for parks and recreation. We actually scratched that project because we figured this would serve our community better by putting in an accessible pathway.”

Renovations on the baseball and softball fields started in the fall and are about 90 percent complete, and in the spring the contractors will lay sod on two of the fields at Friendship Park and level more of the fields.

“So, seven fields were renovated. It will be nice. We’ll save on maintenance, closures and (improve) safety,” Whatley said. “We replaced all of the old, dilapidated soccer goals. We were able to save about $20,000 on those goals by grouping them all together and we went with a nice, lightweight aluminum goal that’s recommended for longevity and quality. They’re easy to maintain and get replacement parts.”

The Friendship Park meeting room got a new roof and solar panels to help with energy costs, and new furnaces and air conditioning units.

“Two months ago, we had both of our furnaces go down. It’s been an ongoing struggle for years,” Whatley said. “Our return on investment for that (roof and solar panel) project was eight years, and we’re actually producing more power than we expected and it’s wintertime. So, we’re expecting to do really well on that in the summer and cut down and hopefully pay it back in six years now.”

They also replaced all the old stoves at Camp Agawam’s facilities with “modern, safe” stoves.

Renovations on the Sheardy Pavilion and restrooms at Civic Center Park have been pushed back to 2021.

2020 projects

“We are just now in the process of putting together some agenda memos to start going out for requests for proposals (RFP) for the 2020 projects,” Whatley said. “So, we’ll hit the ground running this year.”

Projects for 2020 include more outdoor exercise equipment stations at Friendship Park.

“We’ll be putting a small exercise station near the playgrounds so that parents can recreate while the kids are playing,” he said.

The playgrounds at Civic Center Park also will be renovated this summer.

“We’re going to be redoing the Civic Center playground, doing some renovations, we’ll be keeping with two swing bay sections because those are still in good shape,” Whatley said. “We understand the community had said they want that more of a little kids’ playground, so it will be geared more toward two- to five-year-olds.”

They will also be replacing the roof and siding at Birch Grove and Alberici Lodges; installing lights at baseball fields #1 and #4 at Friendship Park; continuing Wildwood Amphitheatre events and promotions ($25,000), sealcoating asphalt surfaces ($55,000) and green infrastructure projects ($4,000).

“With the asphalt repairs, we used every penny last year. So, we’re getting in a nice cycle every single year,” Whatley said.

“Our parks are always busy. And that’s not necessarily just Orion Township parks. The county parks, the state parks – people love their recreation in our community. We have been very blessed with all the recreational opportunities,” Whatley said. “I feel very grateful to be raised in the community and still work in the community and to give back for something I love to do.”

Adapting the project timeline

In 2020 and 2023 the department planned for construction projects that were similar in scope of work. For instance, by combining the volleyball and tennis courts projects in the same year, a contractor may bid on both together and save costs.

“So instead of spreading those two out, we decided to group those two projects together in the same year to save on resources and mobilization costs. Maybe we can bid out the projects together…and be able to get a better price by quantity and reallocate that way.”

“We’re looking at the original list we sent out to the community, but we’re doing a little shifting around to be able to save and use resources more efficiently and appropriately,” Whatley said.

Budget

The 2020 budget is slightly more than $3.2 million and the parks and recreation millage is expected to bring in just over $1.7 million in 2020, Whatley said.

The department does bring in some revenue from programs, and the township supplements the budget from the general fund. However, before the millage was approved, the township supplemented most of the parks and recreation department’s budget.

The department has 14 fulltime employees but hires more seasonal work during the busier summer months.

“We’re right around 26-27 will fulltime, part-time and contractual employees at our most throughout the year,” Whatley said. “Yeah, we run pretty lean.”

Other projects

There have been other projects and developments in the parks over the past year or so. Orion Township has a revenue-sharing agreement with Oakland Paintball, which just had their first year at Camp Agawam in 2019.

“They had a slow start but they started doing pretty well toward the end of the season. Probably 99 percent of the comments that I’ve heard from participants that have used Oakland Paintball have been excellent, very positive,” Whatley said. “Obviously the first year they’ve had some hiccups and some kinks we’re working out. So, we’re looking forward to a successful second year and we’ll see how it goes from there. It’s nice to be able to have an extra recreational amenity in the parks and generate some revenue for the parks system.”

Camp Agawam

“We’ve seen our use increase tremendously out at Camp Agawam. So, you’ll see over the next couple of years that we’ll be doing a lot of capital improvements out there – road improvements.

Miracle League Field

“No matter what it has an impact on the parks. We completed phase one of the field installation,” Whatley said.

“Now that we have the Miracle League Field, we’re able to combine resources with Easterseals and Orion Township and build a restroom facility and a concession stand and a small storage shed that will not only service the Miracle League Field, but the baseball fields while being fully operated by Easterseals. They will fully staff the concession stand. And all the proceeds that are generated from the concession stand will go to maintaining the Miracle Field complex. So, it’s a win-win.”

“We’ve made a big push over the last five years for inclusive recreation in all of our parks. And with our partnerships with the Daisy Project and Sister Souls and all of the various groups were able to make some amazing improvements to the park system.”

The parks and recreation department will continue to offer its three big events: the Big Rig Gig,

Focusing on expanding the senior programs

Planted more than 125 trees this year

“We try to plant around anywhere from 20-40 trees per year. But this year we did really well and we actually started a small tree nursery farm so as they grow and develop, we can replant them and keep the habitat going.”