The Calvert Board of Commissioners held a work session to receive an update on the master plan implementation for Ward Farm Recreation and Nature Park in Dunkirk, July 16.
County staff provided a detailed presentation on the history, timeline, and future plans for development and operation of the 209-acre Ward Farm the county acquired in 2013 for development as a park. The master plan, which was completed in 2015, lays out in multiple phases, the design and amenities planned for the park.
“The things that we have prioritized are natural surface trails, water access and athletic fields,” Parks and Recreation Director Shannon Nazzal said to the board.
Nazzal said the items were identified in the 2010 Calvert County Comprehensive Plan, Land Preservation, Parks and Recreation Plan, Program Open Space Annual Plan as well as Parks & Recreation Strategic Plan, all of which the park’s master plan aligns.
“It’s our first part that combines both active and passive recreation,” Nazzal said, reflecting resources from both the park and safety and the natural resources divisions.
“Are we basically just going to do the same type of concept that we’ve done through the county, just a regular recreation park? Commissioner Mike Hart (R) asked, wondering if athletic tournaments could be hosted at the park.
Nazzal said the park was slated for recreation, but there will be opportunities for tournament play after the full buildout of the park on its northern ball fields.
The first construction phase for the park has been designed. A grading permit issued in June. Phase 1 of the master plan includes the design for stormwater management, the creation of parking and a traffic circle, two multi-purpose fields for baseball and other uses, and one multi-purpose field for soccer and other uses.
“In November, we started the utility infrastructure design for the park, which will be known as Phase 2,” Park and Safety Division Chief Shaun Meredith.
Meredith said construction bid documents were completed and the bid opening period is scheduled for Aug. 8.
Potential bidders will be required to provide an estimated timeline for project completion, but staff anticipates the construction on Phase 1 to begin in October or November.
Nazzal said the completion of the park would be 15 to 18 months.
Natural Resources Division Chief Karen Molines discussed the timeline for the education overlook, pond pier and natural surface trails.
She said they are following a parallel track of design and construction because the permitting process is different from athletic fields.
“The master plan also does include other gazebos, overlooks [and] boardwalks, but these will be in future planned phases as we move forward,” Molines said.
The natural resources chief said the planned amenities are essential for the division’s environmental education programs that are conducted in a partnership with the Calvert County Board of Education and the Calvert Nature Society.
“At the same time, the public will be able to use them to observe wildlife, enjoy the scenic views of the pond and Hall Creek, and also just appreciate the natural areas that are part of this park,” Molines said.
Surface trails will allow for walking and off-road biking.
Future plans include the creation of a comfort station, refurbishment of the Ward House to allow public access, the inclusion of a maintenance facility, picnic pavilions, dog park and nature center.
Staff said further development would coincide with available funding.
The acquisition and first phase of the project were funded for $7.9 million through the county’s capital improvement plan, according to staff documents.
The master plan implementation was also reported to cost approximately $28 million.
“That was what was estimated in 2015. So, it is likely higher than that,” Nazzal said.
In April 2019, the BOCC passed a resolution allowing the issuance of up to $23.25 million in general obligation bonds to pay for various capital projects to include Ward Farm.
Nazzal clarified with The Calvert Recorder that the $12.5 million is the total amount allocated and estimated for FY20-FY25.
It does not include previous year allocations/expenditures, or projected allocations after FY25.
This spring, the commissioners approved the county’s six-year capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2020-25 which included the park’s master plan implementation, reportedly expected to cost the county $20,421,551.
Staff documents from last Tuesday’s presentation show an additional $12.5 million in funding is anticipated in the CIP FY2020 – 2025.
Identified as future revenue, it includes Calvert County General Obligation Bonds for FY2020-25, expected to produce $6.5 million in park funding.
It also includes six million in revenue from the Calvert County Youth Recreational Opportunities Fund, the distribution of the state admissions and amusement tax on electronic bingo and electronic tip jars.
Nazzal said the gaming revenue from the fund is expected to yield on average a million dollars per year for FY2020-25.
Staff estimates the annual operating expenses for the park is $384,000, beginning in FY21.
The department presented its staffing request to the board.
It included a park manager ($44,244 annual salary) to supervise staff as well as lead park day to day operations including visitor services, park maintenance and repair, and enforcement as well as assist with Phase 1 and continuous park development; and a park maintenance specialist ($32,432 annual salary) to perform park day to day operations including visitor services, park maintenance and repair, and enforcement of park rules and regulations.
Both positions are slated for on-boarding in FY21 before the park opening.
Other staffing requests include a mix of full-time, seasonal and hourly positions when the park opens and throughout buildout. The positions include nature center manager, naturalist, office assistant and park maintenance specialist, park ranger, grounds maintenance workers, customer service attendants and more.
“The seasonal and hourly workers are really the worker-bees of our parks,” Molines said, laying out the need for human resources to support the park when it opens from March to October, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Hart had numerous questions for Meredith and Nazzal about the timing of the hirings out of concern for funding and suggested it was “putting the cart before the horse.”
“I don’t want to hire them; you’ve got over $100,000 of labor here if they’re not doing anything for five months, six months,” Hart said.
Both Meredith and Nazzal were steadfast in their belief that it is important to have staff in place before the park opening to ensure they are well-trained and familiar with the facility in time for opening day, given the long hiring process.
Commissioners’ President Thomas “Tim” Hutchins (R) suggested to staff to do reverse planning from the project’s target date to get a clearer timeline for bringing certain staff on board.
“We’re looking at numbers and beginnings of fiscal years with unknowns as to how long it’s going to take to find this person even if it is advertised beginning on July first of any given year,” Hutchins said.
Hutchins requested an overlay of the different phases on the park’s map, and for a chart showing the breakdown of the percentages of the gaming revenue from the youth recreational opportunities fund versus the county’s funding for the park.
“It took the entire delegation to make this happen,” Commissioner Steve Weems (R) said, referring to the long effort by the lawmakers representing Calvert in the Maryland General Assembly who provided the funding mechanism for the park. “They are to be commended for it.”