Wisconsin parks department consistently aims high and scores
By JODI MARLIN and AMY WENGER | The Municipal
“Wow — what should we do first?”
Is this the reaction visitors have to your local park facilities? Certainly the sentiment is the holy grail of park and recreation management: but actually putting one’s finger on the pulse of residents’ interests, employing the vision needed to turn what is into what could be and funding the whole kaboodle — well, it’s arguably tougher than getting an African- American nominated for an Oscar.
It might not be an exaggeration to say that Middleton, Wis., has succeeded in the former, however. A 2015 Public Lands Annual Report lays out exactly why the National Recreation and Park Association Class 5 city — which means it boasts approximately 30,000 residents — enjoys heavy acclaim from both locals and visitors to the Madison suburb.
A large network of parks and conservancy lands exist in and around Middleton, taking the shape of 53 parks of varying sizes. Each has its own charm and popular amenities: the dog park; splash pad; skate park; six community parks, one offering fishing and five with ball diamonds; eight neighborhood parks; eight mini-parks; eight ponds and other conservancy lands; a golf course; boat launch; public pool; and more.
The Department of Public Lands, Recreation and Forestry maintains 558 acres of designated municipal park land. It’s also responsible for 823 acres of conservancy area. Pheasant Branch Conservancy alone is 550 acres that boast more than 90,000 annual users, three times the local population.
Twenty-seven or so miles of trails run throughout. They’re utilized on a daily basis for walking, running and biking during the summer, skiing and snowshoeing during the winter. The design of one, Graber Pond Accessible Trail, earned Middleton a Trail Design of Merit Award of Excellence from the Wisconsin Park and Recreation Association in 2015. Part of the motivation for that recognition came from the fact that it features an Americans with Disabilities Act-accessible kayak launch and fishing pier, the first of its kind in the state.
Golf, bikes and trails
Duffers enjoy municipal-owned Pleasant View Golf Course for its beautiful environs that consist of a panoramic view of Lake Mendoza to the east, ice-age terrain to the west, an urban landscape to the south and dense woods plus Savannah to the north.
Sharing that aesthetic is Middleton Bike Park, a hilly course that’s open free of charge and includes a pump track laid out by renowned designers Mike Riter and Ben Blitch. The National Recreation and Parks Association describes the attraction as an “innovative 8,500-square-foot, 3-mile Bike Skills Park (that) presents an exciting BMX and mountain bike experience.”
Ice skating on public ponds and a 10,000- foot public rink is another in-demand Middleton winter activity; additionally, an off-road walking and biking trail that runs near the golf course converts in the fall to what’s widely regarded as the best skiing trail in the region. During warmer months, an extensive local trail system, featuring Wisconsin’s first two total body Energi Fitness Systems, draws heavy numbers of walkers, runners and bikers.
Universal access and dolls?
The headquarters of a highly popular line of children’s dolls, American Girl, is located in Middleton. In 2011 MPLR and Lee Recreation coordinated 300 park employees, American Girl Fund for Children volunteers and community members who showed up to construct one of the largest playgounds in the county: an American Girl playground consisting of innovative Playworld Systems structures. The company’s charity had previously donated to and helped construct a state-of-the-art splash pad at the same park. The Lakeview Park Splash Pad contains 29 Vortex elements and a flow-through design with unchlorinated water that returns to the groundwater supply. At 4,800 square feet, it’s the largest municipal splash pad in Wisconsin.
In 2014 another state “first” took place in Middleton: an all-accessible NEOS playground was built, adding 11.2 acres to Taylor Memorial Park. Two new youth centers and a new arts facility have also been constructed, and recreation program offerings at these and other facilities are as diverse as youth engineering courses, art, music, support groups, dance, driving courses for seniors, and sports leagues and clinics. It’s no wonder MPLF program participation doubled in 2014 across the board.
Many of MPLR’s enviable land holdings, facilities and programs have been made possible by grants and local donations, said Penni Klein, public lands director.
“When you can finish a project on time and under budget, and keep it well-maintained, people want to work with you. So our goal is to make it easy for them to do so,” she said.
The commitment of Middleton Public Lands, Recreation and Forestry to preserving the economic and education benefits of parks, using them to improve nutrition and fight hunger, obesity and physical inactivity and to demonstrate universal access to public parks and recreations caught the attention of the National Recreation and Parks Association. Last year the NRPA named it a finalist, for the third time, in it’s annual National Gold Medal Awards for excellence in park and recreation management.
Not resting on its laurels, the department is currently finishing a Veterans of Foreign Wars Memorial and shelter in Lakeview Park that will feature an interpretive labyrinth of local veterans’ history. In addition and among other projects, sediment removal that began last fall in Orchid Heights Park will continue this year. That sediment will be spread on an expansive area of the park to create six new soccer fields.
A parks endowment fund for future use within the community is also being finalized. Klein is looking forward to working with a group of people who want to do great things for their city, county and state, she said.
The PLRF is also moving forward to become Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation certified. This national certification recognizes agencies for excellence in operation and service while providing assurance to the public that the agency meets national standards of best practice.
“From a management standpoint it makes sense. We have worked hard at establishing best practices for the long haul: good business management practices, good policies, good procedures, maintenance and staffing. This will ensure that we keep doing the right thing to preserve what we have for the generations to come,” said Klein.