Mooney Grove gets a look from both sides
By Reggie Ellis
visalia – A councilmember’s plan for the City of Visalia to take over maintenance and operation of Mooney Grove Park will at least be considered as a topic for discussion by the Visalia City Council. The man who suggested the idea made sure of it.
At its June 5 meeting, City Councilmember Greg Collins suggested that an item authorizing staff to research the cost of maintaining Mooney Grove be added to the consent calendar of the June 19 meeting where it can be considered to be placed on the agenda of a future meeting by vote of the council.
“If we allow it to spiral downward we are losing a significant resource,” Collins told the Council. “This is an iconic park that was donated to the citizens of Visalia and the County.”
Collins request earned the approval of at least two people who live near Mooney Grove. Mary Bryant, director of the Real Mooney Grove Project, said she was glad to hear the City’s interest in the importance of the park to Tulare County’s history, culture and recreation. Bryant officially launched the Mooney Grove Project in June 2014 after she was appalled by the disrepair and despair of the park during a visit in February 2014. The private, non-profit organization’s goal was to restore key elements of the park’s past including a concession booth, fish/fountain pond, row and paddle boats, concerts, carnival rides, a petting zoo as well as better fencing, security and lighting.
“Please take our Mooney Grove Park and return it to the magical place it once was,” Bryant said.
Another resident of the adjacent mobile home park, Amy Dickinson, echoed Bryant’s comments. “I would love to see Mooney Grove taken over by someone else.”
Collins suggested the idea, along with the possibility of including Cutler Park, during a May 8 forum on parks and open space at 210 Café in Visalia. Sitting next to Collins at that forum was Tulare County Deputy CAO John Hess and former Visalia City Councilmember turned County Supervisor Amy Shuklian. On June 6, Hess presented Shuklian and the other members of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors with a Strategic Plan for the county’s 10 parks. Hess said county parks total 628 acres, 27 full-time employees and an annual budget of $2 million. More than half of that total ($1.2 million) is budgeted for Mooney Grove and Cutler Park representing just $164,000. In comparison, the county only generates about $260,000 in revenue each year from the parks combined from gate fees, arbor rentals, camping charges and disc golf. Mooney Grove represents 41% of the total revenue generated by all 10 parks.
Hess explained that county parks were the victim of drought, tree disease and the Great Recession over the last half decade. He said Mooney Grove has fallen into disrepair because improvement projects were tabled until revenues recovered. Meanwhile, the drought not only created a breeding ground for tree mortality issues but also sucked the county’s wells dry at both Mooney and Cutler parks. Hess said the county had to spend $1 million just to replace the wells at those parks, pushing off maintenance for another year.
“We had to deal with some major issues and put in two wells,” said Supervisor Steve Worthley. “Those infrastructure projects are not things the public can see but have big dollar amounts.”
In addition to new wells, Hess said other projects in the Mooney Grove master plan included strategic tree removal and the formation of the Visalia Feral Cat Coalition Trap, Neuter, and Return pilot program (both approved in 2016), cleaning the pond and restocking it with fish, as well as ongoing coordination of museum activities for public and school use. Hess said in the last two years the County has repaired broken benches, barbecue pits and picnic tables through its capital improvement fund.
Hess’ report was not well received by John Rogers, another resident living near Mooney Grove. Rogers said the County is using the drought as an excuse when its parks department waited at least a year and a half to replace the well while historic oak trees were dying.
Rogers, along with those part of the Real Mooney Grove project, oppose parts of the 20-year master plan including plans to demolish the water fountain and the concession building and no plans to return the boats, rides and other activities. Rogers demanded that the County clean the pond and begin fixing things instead of planning to tear down pieces of history within the park.
“You have not done a good job of maintaining Mooney Grove, it’s been horrible,” Rogers said. “The 20-year plan, in my opinion, has been a big distraction.”
Worthley said he shared some of Rogers’ frustration and asked Hess to come up with actual costs for some of the less expensive, “aesthetic” repairs at Mooney Grove, such as fixing the drinking fountains.
“I’m old enough to remember the great days at Mooney Grove,” Worthley said. “But we have other parks and other responsibilities as well.”
Hess recommended establishing an annual Maintenance and Improvement Program (MIP) to prioritize projects at all of the parks, seeking grant funding to do one-time projects, increasing public engagement and outreach, and providing park staff with customer service training and tasking management with developing customer service protocols. The Supervisors did not approve the recommendations, instead asking Hess to return with more specifics, such as the cost of smaller improvements.
“I’m not ready to turn the keys over yet,” said Shuklian, referring to her symbolic joke of handing over her keys to Collins at the May 8 forum. “I’m not ready to give up and them over.”
Supervisor Worthley said he saw Collins’ comments as an opportunity to collaborate. “Visalia and the County can do more together than individually.”