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story.lead_photo.caption Greg Humphreys speaks to the El Dorado Parks and Playgrounds Commission during a public hearing about potential improvements to city parks. Approximately 35 people attended the hearing March 5 and shared a variety of ideas and comments about what they would like to see in city parks and other recreational spaces.

Soccer, pickleball, activities for older children, campsites and public restrooms were some of the ideas and comments that were shared during a meeting that was held last week by the El Dorado Parks and Playgrounds Commission to solicit public feedback about potential improvements to city parks and other recreational spaces.

Approximately 35 - 40 people piled into the Council Chamber of City Hall March 5 to lend their voice to an effort by the commission to draft a proposal for park improvements and to present a funding request to the El Dorado Works Board to improvement projects.

The board administers the city’s one-cent sales tax for economic development.

The tax, which went into effect in 2015, is conservatively projected to generate $50 million over its 10-year life.

Of 15 percent in revenue that is dedicated to community development, 6 percent has been set aside for parks and playgrounds, including sports, recreation and outdoor venues and projects.

Last fall, Ken Goudy, chairman of the parks and playgrounds commission, said that the group needs to tap into the funding source and develop a master plan to upgrade, improve and modify city parks.

The commission consequently agreed to schedule hearings to gather public input to incorporate into the plan.

During the public hearing, commissioners heard a range of ideas to help improve city parks, including facilities for more sporting activities, activities for older children, campsites, public restrooms, directional signs and maintenance.

Many of the comments centered on the need for soccer fields that are accessible to the community as a whole.

Chris Nale and Ana Marquez told commissioners about a community soccer league that uses Neel Park as its base.

Commissioners, city officials and residents in the area have previously reported that the park is packed with families, children and food vendors when the league is active during the year.

Marquez said the league includes seven teams per season, has referees and uses FIFA rules as a guideline.

She also said players are required to wear uniforms and shin guards.

“It’s become a good family environment. Everybody comes out, we eat and everyone enjoys it,” Marquez said.

Local churches have also used the park to play softball.

“Neel Park is the most utilized park in this community. There are 200 people out there on Sunday and they don’t have a place to go to the restroom,” Nale said.

Commissioners and city officials have long discussed the need for public restrooms in city parks and explored options to curb recurring instances of vandalism that have previously been reported in restrooms at Mellor Park.

Nale noted that when the community soccer league initially began drawing crowds at Neel Park, the gatherings also drew complaints from some of the residents in the Parkway neighborhood that surrounds the park.

A Parkway resident himself, Nale said tensions have since eased and the league and neighborhood work together to maintain the park, even mowing the grass.

“I know vandalism is an issue and I know there were restrooms there in the past. If there were restrooms at Neel Park, I believe the community will protect it,” he said.

“We’re very much concerned with restrooms. We know it’s a real issue. Right now, we’re trying to find something that’s as indestructible as possible,” Commissioner Brian Jones said.

Marquez said soccer players in surrounding areas are interested in coming to El Dorado to play, but the poor condition of the Neel Park field and lack of adequate soccer facilities in the city keeps them away.

“They won’t come back. Parents don’t want their kids to play there because it’s a hazard,” she said.

Greg Humphreys, who said he was vice-president of the soccer booster club for El Dorado public schools, said multiple soccer fields are needed in the area.

He noted that popularity and local interest in the sport has grown within the past decade.

“We’ve struggled for the past 10 years to find someplace the practice,” Humphreys said.

Jones agreed, saying that his children also participated in soccer when they were younger and it was difficult to find dedicated soccer fields in Union County.

He noted that four new, youth soccer fields are included in a master improvement and expansion plan for the El Dorado-Union County Recreation Complex.

The city has approved $2.6 million from the El Dorado Works tax to fund the project, which is expected to get under way later this year.

Nale sharply interjected his thoughts on the matter, saying, “We don’t need to build soccer fields and then we don’t allow anybody to play. We need fields for the community.”

“It’s going to be the same way at the complex that it is with the (El Dorado School District soccer fields) where you’re not allowed to play,” he continued. “We need fields where kids can go play on a Saturday afternoon.”

Louis Torres, a 2018 graduate of El Dorado High School, said he played for the EHS soccer team and would not only like to continue to play, but also help recruit other children in the city to play soccer and keep them away from negative influences.

Other ideas

Janis Van Hook, president of Keep El Dorado Beautiful, called on the commission to consider facilities that appeal to older children in the community.

“We need some of type of indoor facilities where kids can go when it’s cold and raining. Most of our parks are tailored for smaller children,” Van Hook, noting that most city parks have playground equipment, such as swings, slides, and monkey bars.

“We need activities for all of us to participate in. We often complain about kids getting into trouble, but there’s hardly anything for older kids to do.” she continued. “There’s no bowling alley anymore and there’s no skating rink anymore.”

She told commissioners about a recent out-of-town trip in which her family visited a Main Event Entertainment center that offered family activities including bowling, laser tag, arcade games and a restaurant.

Van Hook also noted that local families often travel to a trampoline park in Monroe, Louisiana.

Van Hook also lauded the condition of Mattocks Park, which has the city’s only public swimming pool and fishing pond.

Commissioners have discussed whether to keep the pool open, noting that its deteriorating condition and annual expenses are cost prohibitive.

“It’s a beautiful park, but most people don’t know how to get to Mattocks Park but one way, and it’s not the most pleasant way,” Van Hook said.

She suggested erecting directional signage and she asked commissioners to explore options to keep the pool open.

Joanie McGaha suggested adding a campground to the city’s parks and recreation system.

McGaha said she is part of a women’s group that participates in camping trips that are hosted each month in the region, including Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma.

“I can’t ever host one here in El Dorado,” she said, noting that the group is made up of about 500 women.

Cody Wales, a Washington Middle School teacher, said he turned the public hearing into an assignment for his students and asked them to design a city park.

Some of the ideas submitted by the students were more swimming facilities and water features, a trampoline park, a dirt-bike track, improved lighting, more basketball courts and better pedestrian and bicycle access to city parks.

Earnestine Walker, who said she lives near Old City Park, asked the city to consider clearing overgrown vegetation in the area so neighbors can keep better watch over the park.

“A lot of kids come to that park to fight and to abuse the water (fountain) and we try to look out for things like that but it’s difficult to see because of the trees,” Walker said.

Children in the neighborhood have said they would like to see more playground equipment and a stage for live performances added to Old City, Walker told commissioners.

Other ideas the commission heard were adding a workout circuit to the walking trail that encircles Lions Club Municipal Golf Course; using soft surface material for planned extensions to the trail in order to accommodate people with joint issues; and building playground facilities for children with special needs.

Tia Lyons may be contacted at 870-862-6611 or tlyons@eldoradonews.com.

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