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Watson Park improvements on agenda for Saturday meeting

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, at 2:31 p.m.

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O.J. Watson Park could soon be home to live concerts, a zip line and perhaps even a farmers market, a city official said Wednesday.

But first on the list of priorities to upgrade the south Wichita park is a new engine for the half-sized train that takes tens of thousands of children for rides every year, said Doug Kupper, director of parks and recreation for the city. The engine needs to be replaced.

“It’s at the top of the pyramid for what the citizens say is important to them,” Kupper said of the train, which averages about 35,000 passengers a year. “That one is a key. I think it’s doable. It’s just a ‘Which way do we go?’ ”

Officials have estimated it would cost $175,000 to replace the engine, and Kupper said officials will need to decide whether to use city money to pay for it and recoup the cost through fees or find a concessionaire that wants to provide the train and charge its own rates for rides.

City officials have been gathering input from residents over the past several months, and their recommendations will be reviewed by a steering committee at a public meeting 2 p.m. Saturday at the community building of the park, 3022 S. McLean Boulevard. Kupper said he has been impressed by the public response and said many of their suggestions will be considered.

“Almost everything we see on there is doable,” Kupper said of the list.

Watson Park comprises 119 acres along the Arkansas River in south Wichita. The park has a 40-acre lake for fishing and pedal boats. Recreational opportunities include miniature golf, pony rides, volleyball and picnicking.

Kupper called Watson Park “one of our most important lakes.”

“It’s the only park we staff seven days a week,” he said.

People have recommended putting on live concerts at the park and adding a zip line. Kupper said the key to adding attractions will be figuring out a way to do it without increasing the burden on taxpayers. The park’s operating budget is about $300,000, and fees recover only about half of that.

City officials hope to make the park self-sustaining by 2015.

“We know we have citizens that rely on our parks and our activities and they might not have the income to pay outrageous fees,” Kupper said.

Concerts may need to be subsidized by sponsors, he said, or paid for by revenues generated by drawing a major act to town.

The zip line has proven to be a popular feature at the Wichita River Festival and Kupper said one could readily be set up at the park. Officials will just need to “make sure it is safe and a lot of fun” so people “will want to do it over and over and over again,” he said.

As officials mull over what features and attractions to add to the park, he said, they’ll need to deduce what the return on the activity will be.

“There’s no point in putting it out there if people don’t want it or won’t do it repeatedly,” Kupper said. “If we don’t keep it fresh and keep it changing, people get tired of us and stop coming to us.”

A farmers market may be a more challenging addition, he said, because it would have to have a location that didn’t constrict access to other features at the park.

Even as they’re pondering improvements at the park, he said, officials can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s long been a popular lake for fishermen and those who simply like to get out and quietly enjoy the beauty of nature.

“We don’t want to push out the fisherman,” Kupper said. “We don’t want to make it so busy and so loud” many of the park’s regulars won’t come any more.

“We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water.”

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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