Pining for a parks district
Nadaka Nature Park won't have much of a reason to celebrate the new year.
The beautiful green space in the heart of the Wilkes East Neighborhood will be empty after losing its fiscal agent — transforming what was once thought of as the model for future parks in Gresham into just another open area. Despite the work that has been poured into the park, residents will have less of a reason to visit than ever before.
"It almost makes me cry to walk through here and know all those kids won't be coming here to be educated," said Lee Dayfield. "This park was their backyard, playground and forest."
There is no better person to talk to about Nadaka Nature Park than Dayfield. She spearheaded the charge to transform her dream park into a reality. She overcame red tape and bureaucracy, founding Friends of Nadaka to help secure grants and other funding.
The Columbia Slough Watershed Council, a Portland-based organization, had supported the Gresham park since its inception. But with some changes to the board and executive director, the group has decided to focus on other projects.
The backing for Nadaka will end when the money runs dry, which is estimated to happen in January 2020. That means no more activities — from community cleanups to educational gatherings for local schoolchildren — that made the park so special.
"They were so strong and supportive of us for seven years," Dayfield said. "People will notice a big difference."
That difference is inspiring Dayfield and a group of Gresham community members to push city leadership to investigate forming a parks district — an idea rearing its head again after lying mostly dormant for the past decade.
"You would have a continuous flow of money for nothing but parks," Dayfield said. "The possibilities of what our parks could be like are unimaginable."
A parks district has the power to construct, reconstruct, alter, enlarge, operate and maintain lakes, parks, recreation grounds and buildings; acquire necessary lands; and to call necessary elections after being formed.
On Tuesday, Oct. 8, the Gresham Neighborhood Association Coalition held a meeting to dive into the idea of a parks and recreation district. The group voted to advocate Gresham City Council initiate a feasibility study, which would eventually lead to a vote.
A petition also is circulating throughout the community in support of a parks district, with the goal to have a bond measure put before voters in the 2020 election.
"We care about parks. We need to do a feasibility study," Dayfield said. "A parks district could have paid for Nadaka."
In 2010, the city of Gresham, recognizing a need for sustainable parks funding, convened a Green Ribbon Task Force to research and make recommendations for how to support local parks. They also contracted with The Trust for Public Land (TPL) to explore various options.
In 2010, the parks district would have called for a $0.25 property tax levy to generate roughly $2.1 million a year — though a decade ago Gresham was looking at forming one alongside the cities of Fairview, Wood Village and Troutdale. That would have represented a range of $31 to $53 annually for the average home in East Multnomah County.
The task force found that a Gresham parks district could theoretically levy property taxes to generate a maximum of $57.6 million and issue a maximum of $288 million in general obligation bonds for parks.
The final recommendation by TPL a decade ago was for Gresham — because of a perceived lack of support — not to proceed in a ballot measure for parks funding. But the study did find the concept of a parks and recreation district garnered more enthusiasm than other options.
"I am not sold a (parks district) is feasible or passable," said Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis during a city council meeting on Oct. 8. "But we have a changing demographic in the city who may have changing values."
"The community is in a different frame of mind in terms of parks than it has been in a long time," he added.
It doesn't take much imagination to envision a Gresham parks district, as the Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District west of downtown Portland is a celebrated local example. Approved by voters in 1955, it is now the largest special parks district in Oregon, spanning 50 square miles and serving 250,000 residents in the Beaverton and Washington County area.
THPRD, as the district is locally known, provides year-round recreational opportunities for all ages, including diverse classes, 95 park sites with recreational amenities, 70 miles of trails, eight swim centers, six recreation centers and 1,500 acres of natural areas.
"It is amazing to visit and see everything they have," said Dayfield, who was also part of the Green Ribbon Task Force. "It's overwhelming."
A black mark against a successful parks district vote is a general aversion by Gresham residents toward public finance/spending measures, including the failure of the Community Center vote in 2016.
The proposed $48 million bond would have created a 63,500-square-foot facility with recreation, swimming facilities, classrooms and a senior center. The cost would have been about $70 per year for a resident with an assessed property value of $200,000, or $5.83 a month.
The proposal ultimately failed, with 56% voting no.
"I am disappointed that the community center measure didn't pass," Bemis said at the time. "But I am glad that we asked the question."
Now Gresham residents like Dayfield want to be asked another question.
"This city needs a parks district," she said.
Nadaka Nature Park, 17615 N.E. Glisan St., is a 10-acre property acquired from the Camp Fire Columbia organization in 1995.
It was bought thanks to Gresham voters passing an open-spaces bond measure in 1990.
In spring 2015, Nadaka opened, featuring wooden play structures, a community garden, restroom, picnic shelter, walking loop and public art.
"All of this is because of the hard work of community members," Dayfield said.
What made the park special was the bevy of activities happening within the space, thanks to funding from the Columbia Slough Council and grants. There were cleanups, partnerships with schools, bird walks and workshops on native plants and pollinators. Nadaka hosted an annual free community festival that celebrated Rockwood's diversity, and employed a group of "Park Ambassadors" who served as the face of Nadaka — educating visitors and ensuring the park stayed safe and clean.
"We knew raising funds this way was not sustainable," Dayfield said. "We hoped the city of Gresham would fill in the gaps, but I don't see that happening."
The city will continue to mow the grass, pick up trash and tend to the public restrooms — a task previously completed by volunteers like Dayfield — but everything else will be gone. The future of Nadaka is an empty park.
"We need to look at how we sustain (these parks) with maintenance and programming," said Councilor Eddy Morales, who voiced interest in a parks district along with Council President Jerry Hinton and Councilor Mario Palmero.
So far Friends of Nadaka, the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations and Beyond Black CDC have all publicly spoke in support of a feasibility study for a parks district.
"For some of our families who are struggling financially, a trip to a park is the only viable thing available," said John Bildsoe, vice president of the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations.
Leading the charge
While Gresham City Council hasn't formally requested staff to look into one, councilors are keeping a close eye on the upcoming Metro Parks & Nature Bond Measure.
"I can't think of a more nonpartisan issue than parks," said Hinton.
How Gresham residents vote on the Metro bond could indicate a willingness for voters to accept a parks district or some other form of financial support for public recreation.
"The sky is the limit for our parks system," Bemis said. "In order for us to achieve a great community there has to be investments."
In the meantime, those who love Nadaka Park are counting the days until the end.
"We were all volunteering here because we love this place," Dayfield said. "Who is going to lead this charge?"
Once upon a time that person would have been Dayfield, who has poured so much of herself into Nadaka. But she has stepped back from her volunteer leadership role, dedicating more time to her family.
Her hopes, meanwhile, are focused on a potential parks district.
"It could save this place," she said.
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