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Allentown Council member laments sorry conditions at Bicentennial Park

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Nov 15 2013 07:08:38 AM CST
Bicentennial Park in Allentown
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

South Allentown’s Bicentennial Park “looks like absolute, complete and total crap,” declared City Council member Peter Schweyer, “and that’s being nice.”

“Every time I drive by, I’m expecting a section of the bleachers to fall down.”

Schweyer, who lives on the South Side, made his remarks about the city-owned baseball park while City Council discussed Allentown’s proposed 2014 budget with city parks and recreation officials Thursday night.

The ballpark, at Lehigh and Howard streets, has been leased for many years to a company called Elite Championship Tournament Baseball.

“The outside looks horrible,” agreed Rick Holtzman, the city’s parks superintendent.

John Mikowychok, the city’s parks and recreation director, told City Council he recently met with representatives of ECTB about the condition of the park’s outfield fencing, backboards, netting and locker rooms. The city has presented a list of needed improvements to ECTB.

“They are proposing to make these capital improvements in exchange for a credit toward a portion of their $35,000 annual lease,” said Mikowychok, adding ECTB also intends to install synthetic turf in the outfield.

Resident Glenn Hunsicker asked if ECTB is up to date on its lease payments.

Mikowychok said it is not, adding it is about $12,000 behind for this year. He said ECTB made its full payment last year.

ECTB’s lease agreement with the city allows it to spend money on repairs rather than making full lease payments, according to parks officials. It can get a credit for up to 50 percent of its monthly rent by making such improvements.

Holtzman said that agreement requires ECTB to maintain the park, adding he does not believe the operators are living up to their requirement to do maintenance and repairs.

He said he went to the park numerous times in the past to get them to clean it up and cut the grass.

“Maybe it’s time to get our legal department involved, if they are violating the terms of the lease,” suggested council member Jeanette Eichenwald.

Schweyer admitted he hasn’t been inside the park for at least four years. “My concern is that, driving by, the facility doesn’t look so hot. I can’t imagine what it looks like inside.”

Mikowychok said the park’s operators are making regular improvements to spectator seating and “the infield looks excellent. They’ve gotten compliments from leagues using it.”

The parks director said if the operators spend more to improve the park, they want assurance their lease will be extended “to recoup their investment. They’re businessmen and they don’t want to invest thousands of dollars into a facility that the city suddenly would take.”

The Virginia-based ECTB, also known as East Coast Tournament Baseball, has been leasing Bicentennial Park since 2005. Its initial lease was for three years. Council was told the current lease agreement continues for three more years.

When resident Tom Hahn said local sports organizations complain they can’t use Bicentennial Park because of the lease, Mikowychok said: “The city does not wish to be in the full-time business of programming a baseball stadium.”

Only five city residents attended Thursday night’s public budget meeting and all are regular attendees at City Council meetings. The meeting reviewed the budget for human resources as well as parks and recreation.

It was the second of five meetings council has scheduled this month on the proposed $89.4-million budget for 2014.

The next three meetings will be at 6 p.m. Nov. 21, 5:30 p.m. Nov. 25 and 6 p.m. Nov. 26.

Final adoption of the budget is scheduled for Dec. 4.

$100,000 savings in ’14 parks budget

Mikowychok reported the city’s parks and recreation department will spend $105,737 less in 2014 than this year on grounds maintenance and the operation of the city’s trout nursery.

City council members typically question increases in proposed budgets, but Eichenwald wanted to know what is being cut from the parks budget, saying that’s a substantial amount of money.

She stressed she’s certainly not objecting to the savings. “I just want to make sure we’re not penny wise and pound foolish.”

City managing director Francis Dougherty said “one of the biggest chunks of savings” comes from the city closing a large parks maintenance building across Linden Street from Allentown School District stadium.

“I no longer have maintenance needs, heating needs, fuel oil, electricity,” said Dougherty, who added that savings will total about $50,000.

Holtzman said the city also has decreased the use of chemicals on park vegetation to save money.

“How will that impact?” asked Eichenwald.

Holtzman said it might mean one less application of lawn fertilizer or one less application of herbicide.

He said people “possibly” will notice the difference, but added the city applied plenty of chemicals on its athletic fields this year and succeeded in getting them into good shape. In 2014, he said, “we can back off just a little bit” and still maintain them.

Holtzman estimated using fewer chemicals will save the parks department about $10,000.

Dougherty said chemicals were being ordered by lower level managers and stockpiled at a number of places in the park system rather than used. Those stored chemicals now are being used and Holtzman said additional chemicals will be purchased only when needed.

He said the department also will reduce contracted spraying services by about $20,000. “We’ll do that in-house now.”

He explained the city bought a lot of lawn equipment this year, so will need to buy less equipment in 2014.

Explaining cuts were made across the board, Holtzman said: “Maybe this year we’re not going to get as many trees or we’re not going to put as much mulch down or something like that.

“We looked at things we could cut back on and not affect our park system and I think we’ve done that,” said Holtzman. “We’ve gone to a better system of doing things.”

For example, he said the city now uses better quality mulch for playgrounds, which lasts up to three years. “You will see savings there.”

Swimming pools

During the meeting, council member Cynthia Mota announced the Trexler Trust will do a new parks and recreation study that will include a detailed review of the city’s aging swimming pools.

Mota said the city faces pool maintenance and repair costs that total
$12 million. She said the trust also may fund some of those needed improvements.

Mikowychok said two additional full-staffers will help manage the mechanical systems of the city’s four pools and two spray parks over the summer.

Some members of City Council believe Allentown needs more swimming pools – it once had eight -- and that Fountain Park pool along Martin Luther King Drive should be rehabilitated to serve center-city children. That pool has been closed since 2009.

Mikowychok indicated some pool admission fees will increase in 2014, but declined to say by how much, adding those fees still are being developed. He said a discounted family pass will be offered. Those fees must be approved by City Council.

Schweyer said City Council does not typically pass a budget “based on numbers that we don’t know.”

Mikowychok indicated the 2014 budget is based on 2013 pool fees,
adding: “We did not want to assume the pool fees would be approved in our budget submission.”

He said a swimming pool concession stand will open at the Jordan Park pool next summer. He said the city opened its first concession stand at the Cedar Beach pool this year and it was successful. He said the stands will offer hot dogs and snacks, adding fountain sodas will be offered rather than bottled soda.

Mikowychok said bath houses at all four pools have concession stands, but they had not been operating “for a decade or two.”

He also said soda machines have been placed at all four pools. When Schweyer asked whether fruits might be offered as healthier alternatives, the park director said they did offer packaged sliced apples at Cedar Beach, but they did not sell. “I think we ended up giving them away as they neared their expiration date.”

This year the city installed five hydraulic lifts so individuals in wheelchairs can independently get into the pools. Mikowychok said four more will be installed next year. He said aluminum ramps also are being installed over steps at pools as a temporary improvement to assist handicapped visitors.

Mikowychok said the city has not been fined for failing to meet all federal ADA requirements at its pools. He said all public entities were supposed to complete their retrofits to comply with ADA requirements by 1995.

“We have not had a suit filed against us,” said Mikowychok,

“We got lucky,” added Dougherty.

The parks director said the biggest challenge will be retrofitting restroom and shower areas in bathhouses at the pools.

Lights in the Parkway

Lights in the Parkway and other special events now are under the jurisdiction of the city’s parks and recreation department.

Next week the city will hire a new special projects manager who will work in the parks department. Mikowychok declined to name that individual Thursday night.

Schweyer wanted to know why the budget for Lights in the Parkway is about $10,000 less for 2014, after years of that budget increasing or staying about the same.

He asked if the annual Christmas season display will be “just as bright and twinkly,” then added he lives in the Parkway and “you can get rid of it for all I care.”

Mikowychok and Holtzman explained the money will be saved by swapping out some Lights in the Parkway displays that are no longer used by the city for new displays with Rileighs Outdoor Decor in Bethlehem.

Next week the city will hire a new special projects manager who will work in the parks department. Mikowychok declined to name that individual Thursday night.