Reporter

Ramping up recreation: City Council explores the future of St. Cloud parks

Peghorn Nature Park is one of many parks in the city of St. Cloud.

A blueprint snapshot of the future of St. Cloud parks is calling for better access, diversity and amenities that residents of all ages can enjoy.

St. Cloud hired the firm GIA Consulting last year to identify ways to update its Parks Master Plan, a framework of concepts and principals that will guide city planning for years to come.

Kristin Caborn, director of park systems planning at GIA Consulting, shared early findings along with preliminary recommendations to the St. Cloud City Council during a special workshop meeting on Jan. 17.

Price estimates and a final plan will be presented at a later date.

What the city has now

The city of St. Cloud currently has 66 active amenities – things such as playground and recreational areas – along with 55 total buildings.

Sixty-five percent of St. Cloud parks and amenities meet expectations, Caborn said. Another 29 percent exceeded expectations, demonstrating a “wow” factor and high user satisfaction rate.

Only 6 percent of parks were below expectations, according to the consulting firm, much lower than other mid-sized cities.

Caborn said she and her team also identified 14 safety concerns at local parks – all of which have since been corrected.  

Improving accessibility

Making parks easier to access was a major recommendation from Caborn.

That’s why, she said, St. Cloud should strive to have a park or recreational area within a 10-minute walk or a five-minute drive from all major residential areas.

Not all parks need to be owned or maintained by the city, Caborn noted. Home Owners Association (HOA) parks work too – just not the ones set behind gates because they only serve residents in that specific community.

“If there’s an HOA-provided park, we will show the service area just for that HOA, because even though it’s open to the public, most people who don’t live in the community won’t use it,” Caborn said.  

Crossing busy major roadways like 13th Street and the Florida’s Turnpike also weren’t factored into a 10-minute walk, since most pedestrians aren’t willing to cross these areas.

Affordable opportunities may exist to provide better pedestrian access to existing city parks, such as opening an entrance on the south of the Civic Center and Peghorn Park.

“If you’re looking at the property where the Civic Center is, you can clearly see the park boundaries run much further south than the designated walkable area but there’s no entrance to the park down south,” she said.

And the survey said…

About 5,400 mailed surveys were sent out to St. Cloud residents last year to gather feedback on what amenities they want most.

Two public meetings were also held.

Returned surveys were selected to accurately reflect the population demographics of St. Cloud and make the results statistically valid, Caborn said.

Here are some things residents want to see at St. Cloud parks – and recommendations GIA Consulting gave City Council.

 More water features. Residents asked for more places to cool off at the parks, including splash pads, swimming pools and other water fixtures.

 More ways to integrate technology. Having places where people can charge their phones and devices is an increasingly popular request from residents across the state, Caborn said. She recommended the city explore affordable charging station options that are solar powered and install them in high-traffic areas at popular parks.

 Safer routes to parks. Making sure sidewalks and trials connect to existing parks – and maintaining those connections – can help encourage citizens to use amenities. Looking at ways to provide shade or benches along trials is also a good idea, Caborn said.

 Explore Florida-friendly vegetation. This is one way to help cut down on maintenance costs and provide more shade, Caborn said. It would also create and preserve natural habitats for species like Sand Hill Cranes.

Creating more unique parks

The consultant said she will bring back ideas to help St. Cloud create unique experiences at parks that may help with overcrowding and create more enjoyable visits.

For example, many residents want to see more dog parks. If those residents are willing to drive to take their dog there instead of going to Lakefront Park, it could cut down on the number of people using resources at the lakefront.

Caborn commended the city for already installing unique user experiences, and pointed to the American Ninja Warrior-inspired FITCore Extreme obstacle course unveiled at Godwin Park last year.

Improving safety

The council discussed providing better safety and security at parks.

Four cameras with direct feeds to the St. Cloud Police Department are already installed at parks, according to a city staff member at the workshop. Parks and Recreation is also working with the city’s IT department to get two more installed.

Caborn said it might be helpful to also establish a “park ranger” program, where one to three police officers are assigned to monitor the busiest parks on a regular basis.

A park ranger system already exists at Lakefront Park in Kissimmee.

Now what?

Last week’s presentation was a “40,000-foot look” at what St. Cloud can do to create a great master park plan.

The consulting team will now hammer out details and draft cost estimates to bring back to council members during a future final presentation.

St. Cloud is already home to many great park resources, Caborn said.

Providing better communication about what’s available can also be a huge benefit to the city.

“Engaging the disengaged is one of the most difficult things,” she said. “But you all already have some wonderful resources here. It’s just about getting the word out and letting people know.”