By Lee Murray
Big changes are coming to Girard’s Liberty Park in the form of soccer fields, pavilion refurbishments and a bridge replacement.
Mayor Jim Melfi said work will progress in stages, starting with the soccer fields.
“Soccer’s going to be the big thing,” said Melfi, noting that the Girard Soccer League has about 500 participants.
“City council and the administration have been in agreement for a long time to shift funds when available to develop soccer fields in Liberty Park,” he said.
Some of the money for the proposed improvements comes from revenue from the gas well at the park. City council recently approved a $10,000 transfer of those royalties from the city’s general fund to the improvements fund. Councilman-at-large Joe Shelby, who was involved in the initial planning of the development, said the Girard Soccer League also has committed about $14,000 to the project.
But the lion’s share of the redevelopment money is coming from the Vallourec Star construction and revenue the project brings to the city.
“Now they’re putting 20 percent of all of those construction dollars into the Liberty Park fund,” Melfi said, adding the fund has about $50,000 in it.
Melfi said the city eventually will use those funds to improve both the city and the park.
“We’ve never had money to make improvements and make the city greatly involved in both” revamping the downtown area and Liberty Park, said Melfi. “Now we have a few bucks, and we want to spend it where it needs to be spent.”
Plans to relocate soccer to Liberty Park started four years ago. Shelby said he spoke with the soccer league in 2009 and made a commitment to it to secure a place at Liberty Park.
The move also will tackle the ongoing vandalism problem. Lights and tables in the pavilion have been broken, said Shelby.
“The park suffers a great deal of vandalism because of isolation,” he said.
The park system has been operating with a tight budget.
When the city declared fiscal emergency in 2001, Girard’s park system was maintained by a recreation budget of $225,000 per year, which paid for 10 part-time employees and a full-time director. In 2002, the city scaled back its workforce.
“With all the cuts that had to occur, to this day, we still run all the parks system on a mere $40,000 per year,” said Melfi. “We are running them with one full-time director and some summer help.”
Melfi said the city has found ways of operating the park with a lower budget, recruiting volunteer organizations to help with routine maintenance. The Girard Baseball Association maintains the baseball field and runs the concession stand, Melfi said.
“The baseball association has been doing that for eight or nine years,” said Jim Warga, president of the Girard Baseball Association, adding that all the manpower it provides is voluntary. Warga said that moving soccer off the baseball fields will help those volunteers do a better job.
”We’ll have more opportunity to tend to our fields in the off-season and get the fields in peak condition for the spring,” Warga said.
Work on the soccer fields is expected to begin in the fall.
The park’s improvements will happen in phases, Melfi said. The pavement leading into the park hasn’t been repaired in 25 years, and the bridge will be replaced to accommodate the expected increase in use.
Melfi said some older residents have asked him about reopening the long-closed swimming pool, adding that the city has no plans to do so.