C-J: Otter Creek Park Likely To Be Padlocked Through June

(2001 photo of the Otter Creek Park Conference Center by Michael Clevenger for the Courier-Journal.)

Amidst the flurry of news reports about Otter Creek Park‘s closing this past week, the Courier-Journal reported on Wednesday that Metro Parks anticipates that OCP will be closed through the month of June:

Otter Creek Park appears certain to close for an indefinite period on Friday, despite efforts to keep it open.

A group called Friends of Otter Creek Park is discussing strategies for keeping the Meade County park operating, and the city of Louisville remains open to turning it over to either the state or a private vendor.

But for the immediate future, “there are not a lot of reasons to be optimistic,” said Chris Poynter, Mayor Jerry Abramson’s spokesman, adding that hopes for reopening the park soon may be overly optimistic.

“Money is the whole thing,” said Metro Parks Director Mike Heitz.

The city acquired the 2,600-acre park about 25 miles southwest of downtown Louisville in 1947 as a gift from the federal government for its support of Fort Knox during World War II.

Covenants require the property be used for public recreation.

Poynter said the city will save about $180,000 by closing the park for the rest of the fiscal year, through June.

That’s just a fraction of the $20 million needed to make up for revenue lost to flagging job- and business-profit taxes taken by the recession. But, Poynter said, “We had to make tough (budget) decisions, and we think it is best to focus our limited resources on parks within the city.”

Most of the park’s staff of eight has been assigned to other city parks; one full-time and one part-time worker will remain at Otter Creek for maintenance and security, including trying to prevent poaching, said Metro Parks spokesman Andrew Crocker.

The story also reported on Friends of Otter Creek Park’s efforts:

The Friends of Otter Creek group has met twice and will meet again at 7 p.m. Monday at the Southwest Government Center on Dixie Highway.

Several Web sites devoted to the effort have popped up, including a Facebook page, where more than 5,000 people have signed on.

Patsy Bowman, one of the Friends organizers, said ideas for keeping the park open include charging admission, raising user fees and, perhaps, shutting it down from November to April.

The supporters plan soon to present their ideas to Abramson, she said, adding, “I do believe we have a shot.”

Metro Parks officials have said they couldn’t charge admission without losing immunity in lawsuits filed by anyone injured at the park.

Not to open a can of worms with this post, but it seems dubious that the City would be exposing itself to major liability by charging an entrance fee. This is the one sticking point that is always brought up, but so far has yet to be explained in any detail to be credible. Certainly, many parks and wildlife areas all over the country charge entrance fees.

Additionally, measures by the State and other entities were discussed as well:

State Rep. Jeff Greer, D-Brandenburg, said he has talked to numerous state officials about ways to keep the park open, but “it’s just too early” to pinpoint a direction.

“We have some things hopefully turning,” he said. “I’d love to see the park up and running by May.”

Jay Blanton, spokesman for Gov. Steve Beshear, said yesterday that the state administration is willing to talk about ways to preserve Otter Creek, though he said he knows of “no active proposal out there right now that would prevent the closure of the park in the immediate future.”

He said the state, facing its own $456 million revenue shortfall, “certainly has no options involving any kind of assistance for Otter Creek from the general fund.”

Even so, Heitz said his assistants intend to meet with Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources officials next month. They have expressed interest in designating Otter Creek as a wildlife-management area. Fish & Wildlife Commissioner Jon Gassett has said one condition for the state taking over Otter Creek would be that Metro Parks’ ban on hunting and fishing in the park be lifted.

Heitz said Metro Parks has had inquiries from several private vendors and developers interested in running the park. He said the city is considering advertising for competitive proposals for running the park from a developer, who might want to add such amenities as a golf course, restaurant or hotel to generate revenue.

Abramson met Dec. 18 with Col. Rick Schwartz, garrison commander at Fort Knox. The Army officers “indicated they would love to keep it open … but that they had no funding,” Poynter said.

Fort Knox spokesman Ryan Brus said the post already operates the 65-acre Camp Carlson, which includes a 25-acre lake, lodge and campsites open to soldiers, their families and guests. Taking on Otter Creek would duplicate some of those facilities, he said.

Poynter said Meade County officials also “have indicated they don’t have the wherewithal to run such a large park.”

But County Judge-Executive Harry Craycroft, who described the park’s closing as “a crying shame,” said Meade officials are supporting Greer’s efforts to involve the state.

Unfortunately, State and Federal options seem unlikely. Private enterprises interested in running the Park aren’t discussed in any detail, either. Clearly if a major portion of the park would be developed as a result of a private entity taking control, that might be damaging to the wildlife in and around the park, and could definitely be terrible.

In Wednesday’s issue of the C-J, there also appeared this story about David Jones’s 21st Century Parks project: Metro Council Panel Backs Park Management Deal. And in today’s paper there’s this glowing report about Waterfront Park: Waterfront Park Nears Completion of Its Green Revival After 10 Years.

Why can’t there be the same sort of cooperation between public and private enterprise to keep Otter Creek Park open, if that’s what needs to be done? If the budget problems that threatened OCP loomed on the horizon, why didn’t Louisville Metro make as much effort as possible to keep OCP from closing? These questions, and many more, need to be answered.

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