December 10, 2012 9:57:34 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
It started out as a relaxing hobby, a way to unwind from the day's pressures while serving the community. But 15 years later, Caledonia Town Alderman Mike Savage is hoping someone else will take over the management and upkeep of Ola J. Pickett Park.
As an alderman, Savage's involvement has been purely on a volunteer basis, but as the park has grown, the responsibilities have grown as well. It takes a constant bevy of volunteers to keep things running smoothly.
Back in 1997, the 11-acre park was in rough shape and not many people used it, Savage said Sunday. As a relative newcomer to town, and an avid sports fan, he started making small improvements, partly out of civic pride and partly because he enjoyed it.
"It got to be my happy place where I could get away from work," he said. "For some reason it clicked. I liked doing it. And one thing led to another."
Although there were three ballfields, two were overgrown and only one was lighted. Now there are five lighted, fenced fields used for baseball, softball and soccer, as well as two sand volleyball courts, playgrounds, a skate park and a paved walking track.
The park stays busy, from 5 a.m. joggers to afternoon Little Leaguers to late night walkers trying to fit in a bit of exercise before bed.
The baseball and softball programs consist of 34 teams and around 400 players who keep the fields packed from mid-April until mid-August. More than 300 children play soccer on the grassy portion of the fields from September through the end of March.
But in a town of just over 1,000 people, the park serves other roles, too, from social to practical.
"Movies on the Mound" is held at the park once a month, giving families the chance to sit on blankets and watch movies beneath the stars. There are Easter egg hunts and youth rallies, fireworks shows and fundraisers. The two pavilions stay booked for birthday parties, reunions and church picnics.
And more could be done, Savage said. The town hopes to eventually develop the 20 acres of land abutting the park, adding dedicated soccer fields, concession stands and playgrounds. He would like to see an outdoor volleyball league, flag football teams and tennis courts.
But though the park is financially self-sufficient, receiving $15,000 from the town and bringing in an average of around $80,000 per year, it still requires the work of many hands. Savage estimates he spends anywhere from 20 to 40 hours a week caring for the park, depending on the season. The park committee members and a host of volunteers share the burden.
Someone must make sure the grounds are mowed and free of large ant hills. Someone must keep the bathrooms clean and stocked with soap and toilet paper. The garbage must be emptied, fences must be mended, supplies must be ordered, light bulbs must be replaced.
Since his work hours as a Nabisco salesman have increased, Savage is finding it difficult to keep up. The time has come, he said, for a full-time park manager or director.
He has spent the past few months researching cities similar in size to Caledonia, and he says park director salaries range from $18,000 to $30,000. The board of aldermen has been amenable to the idea of hiring someone, and he's hoping that person could take the helm before baseball season begins next year.
But the transition will not be without some bittersweet moments.
"The thing I'm proudest of is the way the town has always worked together," Savage said. "A lot of good people have given a lot of time over the years. They're proud of our town, and they like it. That's the reason we're where we are, and we're still going to have that, even if we have a park director."
The issue is still being researched, and the board has not rendered a final decision on Savage's recommendation.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.