For some, it’s the broken things that are the most deserving of love.
Tyler Hinton and his fellow Atchison Adult Co-Ed Softball League players, who hold games every week this summer against amateur teams around Northeast Kansas, recently learned the City of Atchison is moving toward the private sale of Walt Wilburn Memorial Park.
This isn’t a huge surprise. The ball park’s outfield fence epitomizes a metaphorical crooked fence after years of normal wear and tear, the effects of nature and a little bit of criminal damage. The dugouts are worn down. The bathrooms need to be replaced. Weeds are out of control on the field and especially its surroundings.
Freedom to play
Yet the park has a lot to recommend it. It is built into a secluded valley area near the residential neighborhood where a lot of the players grew up playing America’s pastime. The lights are in working order, for the most part.
“There’s been problems with vandalism. It’s hard to monitor,” said Chairman David Mason of the city of Atchison Parks & Forestry Board. “And so there’s lots of damage to, I think, the fence, and some of the electrical boxes have been broken into for, I think, late night games.”
Grand trees provide plenty of shade, and it’s easy to imagine a day of quiet practice in the valley.
“There’s no traffic here, it’s secluded,” Hinton said. “Which is one of the things people like. Their kids get to roam free down here without having to worry about going out to the street or heavy traffic, fast traffic. You’re allowed to bring your music and play, you know, drink or have a cigarette.”
Mayor Shawn Rizza, citing a city ordinance enacted last year, said all remaining city parks permit tobacco usage except 15 feet within a designated children’s playground. According to the Atchison Police Department, consumption of beer is legal at all parks, although liquor isn’t permitted, and glass containers are banned. These rules have applied to Walt Wilburn park, and still apply to Millard Allen Ball Park, located at North Eighth and Riley.
“I have no issues with the adult leagues that allow drinking and smoking, but I think that’s not the true focus of those leagues,” Rizza said. “They can play at a venue that allows it, or petition the Atchison Recreation Commission to allow it at the Sports Complex (at North 17th and Riley).”
Rizza’s colleague on the City Commission, Charlie Perdue, who is on the ballot this November, dissents from this point of view.
“The vast majority of the people using our city parks are city taxpayers, who are paying for its use,” Perdue said. “Everybody is entitled to the use of the parks, and the Sports Complex is not getting enough teams to use it fully for various reasons.”
Plenty of land on hand
Data prepared by the city’s parks department indicate that as a city of about 11,000, Atchison needs a few dozen acres of park land. Right now, it has more than 400 acres. Some of this land, including Wilburn, used to be maintained by the Atchison Recreation Commission, but following the opening of the Sports Complex in 2010, this is no longer the case, according to a City of Atchison news release.
The city government’s point of view is that it regretfully has too much of a good thing. Residents have been generous over the years donating land for the public good.
Yet, even though city-owned plots are exempt from property taxes, land means money. It must be mowed, weeded and basically maintained against the elements at a minimum, and more complex facilities like Walt Wilburn — with fields, fencing, benches, bleachers, running-water bathrooms, parking areas and more — are costly to keep in good order. The city’s inability to pay for all of this maintenance everywhere in part explains the ball park’s present condition.
“Instead of having lots of space that’s mediocre at best, let’s focus our energy on fewer parks and make them excellent,” Rizza said. “That’s the idea that we’ve concluded ... I know this is not one of the most popular decisions I’ll ever make. Closing a park never is. But it is the correct decision.”
Perdue said he believes that the city has moved too quickly on Wilburn and without sufficient information to make a decision.
“At commission meetings, we’ve been told that Walt Wilburn was underutilized, that sometimes there was nobody using it, and that nobody has made any commitments or any indication that they want to reserve it,” he said. “I’ve found out now that’s not the case. If we’re going to make correct decisions, we have to have correct information ... They’re making it sound like there’s no usage and I don’t think that’s accurate.”
What happens next
Mason said the matter has been discussed at various Parks Board meetings, which take place at 6 p.m. on the second Monday of every month; the next meeting is set for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12, at City Hall. The City Commission next meets at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 5 at City Hall. This will coincide with the 40th anniversary of Walt Wilburn Memorial Park, founded on Aug. 5, 1979, following the tragic death of its namesake in 1975 in a car crash on U.S. Highway 59 across the Missouri River. A petition on Wilburn’s future from local residents is expected to be heard on Aug. 5.
“Since they don’t get as much use as they did in the past ... the Parks Board moved at the last meeting, voted unanimously that we should put it on the land bank,” Mason said. “Usage of these parks has been greatly reduced ... There have been reservations by the various leagues, but there’s nothing consistent enough for us to prioritize (Wilburn maintenance) in that way.”
Per recommendations to the Parks Board, Walt Wilburn will first enter the city’s land bank, which contains various parcels either donated or surrendered to city ownership, and will stop being maintained as a park. Eventually, a private owner could acquire it and either renovate it or turn it toward another purpose.
David Kesinger, a member of the softball league, says the Wilburn ball park’s fate is being decided too hastily.
“I used to do park maintenance for the city,” he said. “The city bases their usage information on what they can observe and waste collection, which is never going to be high no matter what. I get it, I understand, everything costs money, but I feel like these cuts should be put off.”
Rizza emphasized that he believes proper due diligence has been performed on this matter.
“Our parks board is made up of people with young families who have dedicated themselves to making the decisions that are best for our residents and for their own kids, after careful study of the whole situation,” he said. “Our city crew members are monitoring those parks continuously. So, the idea that we don’t have any idea what’s happening in these parks is just incorrect.”
Kesinger said the current plans leave the future of his league uncertain.
“If they close Wilburn, people may leave town,” he said. “They’ll probably just stop playing.”