While the shape of future cuts to Wichita park and recreation programs has yet to be determined, the city manager said that he does not expect to eliminate positions at the Great Plains Nature Center, as had been feared by the center's supporters.
City Manager Bob Layton said the center staff will almost certainly be spared as the city implements $1 million in cuts to park programs, which Layton recommends and the City Council approved Tuesday.
At Tuesday's meeting, members and officers of the Friends of the Great Plains Nature Center made the case for continuing the city's commitment to the center, which provides free programming to about 150,000 visitors a year.
The center is a joint venture of city, state and federal park and wildlife agencies. It was built primarily using federal funds; the state provides two staff and is mainly responsible for maintaining the center and its exhibits, while the city provides three full-time staff and maintains the grounds and the center's system of nature trails.
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The center also receives support from the Friends group, local businesses and nonprofit agencies.
Layton said it's exactly the kind of cooperation that he's hoping to build more of as he and his employees work to reorganize and streamline the delivery of city recreational services.
"I can't imagine a model that would have us backing out of our commitment" to the state and federal governments, Layton said.
"That's good news," said Steve Sorenson, a longtime supporter of the center.
Sorenson, an author and retired state Wildlife and Parks Department supervisor, said the center is a favorite place to take his granddaughter, 6-year-old Alexis Sanchez.
"I can't get within two miles of that place without her wanting to get out of the car and go through the museum," he said.
Concern for the center and its popular director, Bob Gress, prompted several of the center's supporters to attend Tuesday's City Council budget hearing to try to head off cuts.
They were motivated by e-mails alluding to a possible "first draft" of budget cuts indicating Gress and his two staff members could see their positions eliminated.
Tom Hein, president of the Friends, said they didn't know of any firm plans to cut the center but decided to speak to the council to make sure their opinions would be heard early enough to make a difference, if necessary.
"It's something we needed to be on top of," he said. "We didn't want to sit around and get caught at the last minute."
Layton said that possibility of personnel cuts at the center may have been raised early on, "when the budget officers were looking at concepts," but it's not part of any current plan for streamlining the parks department.
City Council member Janet Miller, whose district encompasses the Nature Center, said she's been hearing concerns from constituents about the center and several other park programs.
She said she supports the manager's efforts to cut costs while trying to maintain services for residents.
"I don't see us discussing wholesale elimination of senior dances, or closing recreation centers," she said. But, she added, "there certainly have been a lot of fears" about those type of cuts.
Miller said many times people become concerned about reorganizations of city services but find it turns out all right at the end.
In the case of the parks, she said "I have enough confidence to stand out on a limb and see this process through."