Dirk Ishiwata, the city of Lompoc’s facilities, fleet and park maintenance manager, has a whiteboard in his office that spans from the floor to the ceiling that he uses to jot down many of the things that need to be done at Lompoc’s parks.
Ishiwata, who called the board a “visual representation” of the many tasks that lie ahead for him and his staff, noted that the board often contains a lot of writing.
“I’m not going to lie to you — it’s discouraging from time to time,” he said to a group of about 50 Lompoc residents Thursday at the Hilton Garden Inn during a presentation that was arranged by the Lompoc Valley Chamber of Commerce for him to discuss the state of the city’s parks. “We want the best. Our citizens deserve the best.”
Ishiwata and Lompoc City Manager Jim Throop both acknowledged during the luncheon that many of the city’s 15 parks, which encompass more than 200 acres, are not in ideal condition. While they said they’re hopeful that residents will volunteer their time to help complete some of the much-needed improvements, a couple of Lompoc City Council members have spearheaded their own effort to spruce up one of the city’s most frequented recreation areas.
Just a day after Ishiwata led the sobering discussion that outlined many of the reasons for the parks being in the state that they are, Lompoc City Councilman Jim Mosby was back out at Ryon Park with a group of about 10 volunteers for the third day of work since he and fellow Councilman Dirk Starbuck launched their own effort last month to drum up volunteers to help fill in gopher holes and make other improvements at the 22.5-acre park that hosts many of the community’s largest celebrations.
Mosby, who is running for mayor in the Nov. 6 election, said he became inspired to lead the effort after a conversation with Starbuck in which they discussed some of the complaints that residents have lodged about the park.
“It’s time to get engaged,” Mosby said. “Talk is cheap. Let’s get engaged like Lompocans do and let’s get it done.”
Cutting more than grass
During his presentation, Ishiwata noted that budget cuts, and the ensuing staff cuts, have had a major effect on the quality of Lompoc’s parks.
He said that the parks department several years ago had a staff of 18 employees. Currently, he pointed out, there are six staffers in the department. When off days and other activities, like classes, are factored in, the department can have as few as three or four people working at any given time.
“With six people, you can just imagine,” Ishiwata said.
“For the majority of people that own a home, it’s difficult enough just to maintain a front yard, let alone 200 acres of park land,” he added. “We definitely have a challenge, but I always have to give kudos to my staff. They do an exceptional job.”
The current maintenance budget for parks, according to Ishiwata, is about $100,000. He said that figure falls well below what would be needed to properly maintain — not including major improvements — all of the parks. He said he won't know how much the department would ideally need until after he finishes a parks assessment he is helping to develop.
At Thursday’s gathering, Ishiwata was asked if the city had a maintenance schedule for the parks. He replied that he had, in fact, created one, but that keeping to that schedule has proven to be an especially difficult task.
Contributing to that inability to stay on top of the schedule, he said, is the low staffing level and the fact that the parks employees often get called off of maintenance jobs to take care of emergencies or to respond to citizen complaints.
“Do we have a maintenance schedule? Yes,” he said. “Do we follow it? No. We can’t. It’s impossible.”
Lending a hand
Ishiwata mentioned several times during his presentation that he would like to see community members become more involved in helping to maintain the parks.
That involvement could come with attending Parks and Recreation Commission meetings, which are held on the second Tuesday of each month, or by actually volunteering and putting in the physical work to make improvements.
That latter option is being pushed by Councilmen Mosby and Starbuck, who have encouraged people to help with their work at Ryon Park.
Mosby said that much of the work that he and the volunteers are doing at Ryon Park is similar to what he already does at his own private fields. It primarily involves filling in gopher holes and pounding down the turf to ensure it is stable, as well as gassing the gophers out of the park.
“We were thinking, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do this,’” Mosby said of his early conversations with Starbuck, whom he said had helped him with field work in the past. “We’re short some money here for parks and we know how to do it and we’re not afraid to do it, so we started putting people together and doing it.”
Ryon Park, which hosts the annual Flower Festival and SpringFest celebrations, has been under scrutiny for several years due to its uneven grounds and many gopher holes. It had gotten so bad recently that the Lompoc Valley Kennel Club canceled this summer's dog shows at the park for the first time in more than four decades.
Ishiwata said the city is hopeful to bring the dog shows back, and Kennel Club leaders have expressed confidence that the shows can return to Lompoc in 2019.
Mosby, a Lompoc native, said he took a particularly strong interest in the city’s parks when he served as the chairman of the Lompoc Valley Parks, Recreation and Pool Foundation before being appointed to the City Council in 2014.
After the volunteer work is completed at Ryon Park, Mosby said he’d like to see the volunteer base expand and take on similar work at other city parks.
“I’ve challenged some of the people that say it’s not worth it or it doesn’t matter,” Mosby said. “That’s the wrong attitude. We’ll get through this, but this is what we need to do. Lompoc has relied for many years on volunteerism.”
Setting an example
Ishiwata held up the recent renovations made at Thompson Park as an example of the transformation that can be completed when groups come together to effect change.
Thanks to grants and the efforts of several volunteers, the city was able to make an estimated $747,000 worth of upgrades to Thompson Park. The work included creating federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant accessible pathways to all park amenities, resurfacing the children’s play area, covering the picnic area with a shade structure, installing a new sign, planting trees and putting a fence around the perimeter of the park.
Work on the softball field at the park included building a new press box, adding bleachers with shade structures and dugout seating, and installing gopher wire, an updated sprinkler system, new sod, new concrete and a new scoreboard, as well as replacing the existing restrooms.
To highlight all the work that was done, the city has scheduled a grand opening celebration for 5:30 p.m. Thursday on the softball field at the park, located at 520 North S St.
Ishiwata said the Thompson Park project could serve as a model for future renovations at other parks. There are already plans in place, he said, to upgrade the restrooms at Pioneer Park to make them the same as the new facilities at Thompson Park.
“Is it perfect? No,” Ishiwata said of Thompson Park. “But, if you all know what it looked like before compared to what it’s like now, it’s like day and night. ... If we can continue on and make all the other parks look like Thompson, we should be in great shape.”
Looking ahead, city administrators acknowledge that the fates of the local parks will be largely dependent upon the city’s future budgets.
Throop, who took over as city manager this summer, noted Thursday that the city’s revenue outlook isn’t encouraging at the moment. He said that a preliminary budget outlook would be presented to the City Council shortly after the Nov. 6 election.
“But I’ll tell you right now, we’re in a deficit position for this budget cycle,” Throop told the audience at the chamber luncheon.
Throop added that it will be tough to get more funding for parks, considering that city departments will likely be forced to make further cuts.
One of the attendees at the meeting asked if the city was exploring ways for the parks department to increase its own income.
Ishiwata noted that the parks department, which is separate from recreation, only has one revenue stream: the RV lot and campsite at River Park.
Ishiwata said the city is developing plans to transform the motocross portion of River Park into a “state-of-the-art RV campsite.” That remodel, however, could carry a hefty price tag of about $6.7 million. Even if the funding was currently in place, he noted that any potential work on that project was still several years away and at the mercy of Caltrans.
“We technically can’t start that until the (Robinson) Bridge gets retrofitted (and) widened, because of the amount of traffic that will be coming in and out,” Ishiwata said, referring to the bridge on Highway 246 just west of the River Park entrance. “So we’re looking at possibly six to seven years out before we can even start that project.”
One way that city leaders suggested increasing revenue for parks would be for Lompoc to develop a sports complex that could draw large-scale youth tournaments. Throop mentioned that some cities in the state are seeing large revenue spikes from hosting sports tournaments, which contribute to the host city’s hotel and sales taxes, in addition to the actual fees to use the parks.
In the meantime, both Throop and Ishiwata said they are hopeful more people will pitch in and help keep the parks in the best shape possible while the funding situation is sorted out.
“Personally, I’m tired of going around and complaining about our short-handedness and I’m tired of saying we don’t have the money,” Ishiwata said. “At the end of the day, it needs to be fixed, one way or the other. I’m reaching out to anyone, if they want to volunteer.”
He concluded his remarks by expressing remorse.
“I just want to apologize that we are maybe not living up to everyone’s expectations,” he said, “but I assure you, we are trying.”
Anyone interested in volunteering or submitting park-related concerns to the city can find more information, including an online submission form, at www.cityoflompoc.com/services/parks.
Anyone interested in volunteering with Mosby and Starbuck is encouraged by Mosby to email him at email@example.com.
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.
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