More improvements, events for Wichita parks

Playground at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. (Feb. 15, 2016)
Playground at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. (Feb. 15, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Along with physical improvements, visitors to Wichita parks may notice something else this year: more events, designed to draw more people.

“We’re changing some of our philosophies,” said Troy Houtman, director of the Park and Recreation Department, said. “We’re just trying to get more involved in the community. There are a lot more special events we’re doing.”

That includes bringing 200 stationary bikes to Lawrence-Dumont Stadium for a gargantuan spin class this spring, posting a sort of tour guide/activity leader at downtown’s oft-overlooked Naftzger Park and sending the city’s mobile recreation unit out more than ever.

Houtman came to the city in the fall of 2014. He’s a former parks division manager for the city of Austin. Here’s a look at what’s on the Wichita Park and Recreation Department agenda in 2016:

New choo-choo

It’s not every year that the city buys a new train — not even a miniature one like the train used to haul folks around Watson Park.

“Our last engine lasted a good 30 years for us,” said Brian Hill, manager of the park in south Wichita.

Engine No. 273 gave out in September. “We had a personal name for her, especially when she was breaking down all the time, but I don’t think I’ll share that,” Hill said with a laugh.

Her replacement is being built by Chance Rides Manufacturing in Wichita and is expected to be ready in April. Hill doesn’t know its number yet but he does note it will haul an additional 24 people, raising the maximum capacity to 72. It’s also got a slightly different color scheme — almost entirely black with cherry red highlights.

Watson Park’s engine usually runs March through November, although park personnel are known to activate it whenever weather permits. The 12- to 15-minute ride costs $3 per person and takes passengers around part of the park lake, along McLean Boulevard, past the miniature golf course and back.

“It’s definitely one of the more popular attractions,” Hill said. “We get over 60,000 people a year” riding it — including plenty of adults. “We encourage it,” he said.

The engine won’t be the only new bit of transportation at Watson: Kayaking will be allowed for the first time in the lake. Kayakers can bring their own craft or rent one at the park.

“It’s become a really popular sport,” Hill said. “We’re kind of a good beginners’ spot before people want to go try a river or something like that.”

Making a splash

Buffalo Park in west Wichita should be the site of the city’s newest water playground by the start of summer.

“It’s a fun little playground where kids can run around and splash and get cool in the summer time,” Houtman said.

The water playground or splash pad will be similar to others around the city with some unique design work, such as a small “buffalo head” kids can climb on. “It’s going to be a really fun feature,” Houtman said.

The park is also getting additional parking and restrooms, plus a large picnic shelter. Dead underbrush and trees are being cleared out and the central lawn is being reinvigorated with grass seed.

Water playgrounds use less water than swimming pools and can be operated through longer periods of the day and season, Houtman said.

“If you don’t know how to swim, that’s fine, you can still get wet,” he said. “It’s geared toward little kids.”

Play ball I

City leaders envision more public uses for Lawrence-Dumont, best known as the home of the Wichita Wingnuts minor league baseball team and the NBC tournament.

“One thing we’re working on is a series of outdoor fitness classes called ‘Get Fit Wichita,’ starting with a spring cycle spectacular event,” said Stacey Hamm, who works in marketing and development for the park department.

From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 16, in partnership with Genesis Health Clubs, the city will station 200 stationary bikes at the stadium for use in free spin classes. “We’re looking at doing fitness events at Lawrence-Dumont at least once a quarter,” Hamm said. “We did a rumba event there last fall. We’re trying to bring more exposure to the ballpark itself. Hopefully, it’ll bring more exposure to the Wichita Wingnuts as well, and we’ll get more people out to watch games.”

There’s also a plan to renovate the children’s playground at the stadium.

Play ball II

The city is working with League 42, a nonprofit that helps kids learn to play baseball, to build a new baseball field at McAdams Park, between 13th and 17th streets along I-135.

“They have too many kids and not enough fields, which is a great problem to have,” Houtman said.

The league helps more 400 boys and girls ages 5 to 14 play. The new field, expected to be ready by May, will be slightly smaller than two others used by the league in McAdams, he said.

Core concern

Naftzger Memorial Park, in the heart of downtown, doesn’t enjoy the amount of traffic that city officials would like for a facility in the area they’re trying to develop. It’s a picturesque setting for wedding and prom photos, but it also draws a transient population that may discourage other visitors, Houtman said.

“That is a perception that is there,” he said. “We definitely want to get the park more active. When you do that, that kind of changes the demographics of the park.”

Last year, the city cleaned out brush and trimmed trees in Naftzger, which is at Douglas and St. Francis. This year, the parks department is going to station an employee there with board games and printed information about area attractions.

“We’re also looking at doing events, like having bands down there, having special days with motor scooters, having bicycle nights as well,” Houtman said.

Hamm said the park guides will probably work four or five hours a day, possibly in a kiosk by the front entrance.

“They will also be there to provide more information about what’s going on downtown, answer any questions people have,” she said.

“We’re trying to activate the park and make it more family friend. It’s a beautiful park. It’s a safe park. There are a lot of people moving into the downtown area and wanting to use green space.”

New classes

Several new classes are being offered in the city’s recreation centers, including a tai chi class for adults that’s designed to help with arthritis and back pain, and an art class built around coloring books for adults.

“It’ll help reduce stress,” Hamm said, adding that she’s tried it herself. “It does, actually. It helps get your mind off a long day.”