The board that oversees Billings’ 2,580 acres of parkland checked out some of the results of the $2 million-per-year citywide park district this week.
“It’s good to see where the park maintenance district money is going,” said Marcia Clausing, a member of the Parks, Recreation and Cemetery Board. “It’s being used in a way to benefit a lot of people in a quick manner.”
Together with city council member Ken Crouch and escorted by parks staff, board members were shown new modular restrooms, a remodeled neighborhood center, new batting cage pitching and ball retrieval machines, safer playgrounds — even an irrigation system.
At Veterans Park, a remodeled neighborhood center — available for rent at $100 per day — takes the place of a warming center that was formerly used during ice-skating season. New bathrooms are handicapped accessible. Parks Superintendent Jon Thompson said two or three people putting a shoulder to the neighborhood center could have knocked over a wall on the old 1950s-era building, as well as an identically remodeled building at Gorham Park on the West End.
“We could have replaced the neighborhood centers with new modular buildings, but this is perfect,” said Parks Director Michael Whitaker. “It took more time and effort, but (Planner) Mark Jarvis worked with the architects to save these buildings.”
New material that resembles wood chips has been scattered at 22 playgrounds to protect children from injuries even if they fall from the highest slide. Park attendants rake the chips every morning and place then at the ends of slides and under swings, where children’s sneakers can’t help pushing them away.
Officials had good news and bad news about installing automatic irrigation systems at selected parks. While the price tag is between $200,000 and $300,000 per system, automatic systems drive irrigating costs down about 30 percent and can be easily programmed to water parks when people aren’t using them — say, in the dead of night.
The board next gathered at the nine new pitching machines at Stewart Park — not to take their cuts, but to hear from Recreation Superintendent Kory Thomson how baseball and softball players have taken to the machines, which can do everything from lob a softball to fire a baseball 70 miles per hour. Because the pitching machines are 40 feet from the batters — 20 feet closer than a baseball pitcher stands while firing away from mound — a 70 mph fastball delivered by a pitching machine is the equivalent of a 90 mph heater fired by a Major League hurler from 60 feet, 6 inches.
Temperatures affect a pitching machine’s ability to deliver strikes, Thomson noted. As the mercury climbs, balls get softer and the pitches get gradually higher. Colder temperatures produce knee-high strikes, rather than waist-high deliveries.
“But they’re all strikes,” he said. “That’s what kids are paying for.” There are bargains available, but in general a $2 token buys a batter 20 swings. The new machines are expected to generate $10,000 annually in net revenue.
Billings Little Leaguers are apparently smacking the balls with some authority. Thomson said that attendants spend a fair amount of time retying loose net strings to close gaps and keep the balls inside the net, which looks a little like a circus big top.
A few minutes later, Thompson, the park superintendent, asked the group to look down, where they spied gnarled, dying dandelions, which pleases park officials and park users alike.
Weed management is part of the park maintenance district focus; at several locations, about 320 acres have been sprayed with a herbicide. “There are parks that haven’t looked this good in 20 years,” Thompson said.
At Sacajawea Park, Thompson pointed out one of eight pumping stations the department employs to keep parks green. A big issue at parks like Stewart and Amend parks is that water connections aren’t large enough, which means parks personnel can’t water until ditch water becomes available.
Sacajawea Park must be watered in zones, and it takes a week to water all seven zones. Upsizing the city water line would cut that chore down to one night, he said.
The group concluded its tour with a brief stop at Mountview Cemetery.
“You can only show so much to board members with a PowerPoint presentation,” Whitaker said. “It helps to go on-site and to show what’s been done.”
He said that beginning this fall the board will begin work on a second three-year plan for parks improvements.
That plan, which requires city council approval, should be in place by the beginning of the 2015-16 fiscal year.