COEUR d’ALENE — Perhaps they’re boxed away in storage, or stacked in neat piles on a closet room shelf.
They’re around City Hall somewhere — decades of awards and plaques for the Coeur d’Alene Parks Department.
They go by names such as Tree City USA, All-American City and Bicycle Friendly. They’re nods of appreciation from the state and region for the city’s 585 acres or parkland, and hundreds of the awards used to hang from the walls in the old council chambers.
But they came down when the City Council moved its meetings to the public library.
“I don’t know where they are now,” said Doug Eastwood, parks director, who in his 28 years at the department helm has bloomed five Lake City parks into 29, with the most recent being the dog park, Central Bark, opening on Labor Day. “There were a lot of them.”
There were just too many, you know?
And complimentary e-mails from visitors he forwards to staff, then deletes. Some of the handwritten cards of adoration are kept, but most eventually share the e-mail fate.
But don’t be fooled.
Eastwood might not be the most sentimental man when it comes to recognition, but there’s one award he wants badly. It’s the National Recreation and Parks Association Gold Medal, given annually to one city per population bracket in the country.
It hasn’t been awarded to an Idaho city since Lewiston won in the 1970s. Boise was a finalist in the top four in 2006.
Coeur d’Alene is getting ready to apply next year or the year after. Showcasing the present parks, their usage, partnerships and economic benefits, blended with future plans and innovation, the time might be right to go for the gold.
“That would really be a cool thing for the state of Idaho to have that award,” said Amy Stahl, communications coordinator for the Boise Parks Department. “It would say a lot for the entire state. It certainly puts you in an elite group to be a finalist.”
Is Coeur d’Alene ready for the national stage?
Eastwood thinks so. Others might agree.
“I’ve never seen so much activity in a park, it’s amazing,” said visitor Frank Murphy of Whidbey Island, Wash., taking in the views recently at City Park downtown. “You just spend time down here and you look at your watch and an hour and half, two hours have gone by. I’m very impressed.”
Calculated by impact on hotels, restaurants and shops that benefit from special events and sporting events hosted in the city, Coeur d’Alene parks draw in around $15 million a year to town. The number of those events are rising too, so the number of users and their impacts could be, too.
Concerts, plays, picnics and reunions — 395 events were scheduled in 2009 in city parks, accommodating 116,055 people. That’s up from 281 events and 105,145 people the year before.
And 2010 is on pace to exceed 2009.
Softball tournaments drew in 193 teams for 12 tournaments in 2010, up from 183 and 11 the year before.
The increased use is a sign that not only do the parks draw visitors, more people are staying home to play, as well. Economic challenges may have prevented people from traveling, but it kept locals home to vacation, too.
“It’s a combination of things,” Eastwood said. “We have 29 parks that provide a huge variety of things to do.”
With 40 miles of pedestrian and bicycle paths, 5.5 miles of hiking trails, the parks are a cross of BMX courses, disc golf courses, skate parks and open green space for summer concerts and leisure.
Coeur d’Alene maintains almost 5 acres of developed public space for every 1,000 people, and 10 acres of undeveloped space for every 1,000, on par with the NRPA standards.
“I’ve lived all over the country and this is my favorite place,” said Christina Goold, visiting the downtown greens Tuesday, having rode bikes with her family along the Centennial Trail and lunched at Ramsey Park earlier in the week. “I love it. There’s just so much to do.”
Those diverse opportunities have played a part in recruiting Ironman Coeur d’Alene to the Lake City and the Mayors’ Institute on City Design team, which offered insight on how to expand the education corridor and has worked with the city since its visit on possible grants to help springboard designs.
“They say ‘we don’t see places that care for the parks like here,’” said third-term Mayor Sandi Bloem, on the comments she gets from visitors.
Parks and open space are an important part of Coeur d’Alene’s identity, she said, just as the Northwest environment identifies with open green space, which makes a perfect match.
“It’s definitely better,” said park-goer Maria Jacobson, visiting from Hayden. “You have the boardwalk and beach and a lot of other places just don’t offer that. We come down as often as possible, even in the winter.”
A key to the future is conservation, and McEuen Field.
To conserve money, resources and time, Eastwood began implementing a water monitoring system late in 2006 that allows the city to save 30 percent on its water bill.
“It thinks, it calculates on the fly,” Eastwood said of the system that has allowed the city to add acres without having to hire much additional staff. “It works perfectly.”
The technology, implemented in seven parks including Ramsey and Riverstone, can detect the moisture in a lawn and water accordingly. Set to a certain number, the system can calculate and adjust to that set number should it rain. It shuts off automatically if there’s a break in the line and powers down lights and locks doors automatically, too.
In five years, every park should be online, a relief to its $1.6 million budget, $40,000 of which goes toward irrigation.
So far, it’s proven efficient.
In 2000, the city had 273 acres and six full-time employees.
In 2006, when installation plans began, it had 429 acres, and nine part-time employees, the same number of employees it has in 2010, with 585 acres.
Looking to the future for a possible McEuen Field overhaul, the department is looking to its past, specifically the Ft. Sherman playground in City Park. The wood castle playground is unique, which attracts visitors. It’s not something kids and parents can find anywhere.
But for McEuen, the special playset would be state-of-the-art, too.
It could offer sensory amenities like touch pads and touch activated lights, sounds and a splash pad. But the driving force behind it will be its Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.
Ramps would be wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass side-by-side, and enough access for them to access every amenity, including the swing set which would have its own swing for the chair.
“Most folks believe because you’ve created access to it, that makes it ADA accessible,” Eastwood said. “That’s not going far enough. Let’s go the distance. We have the opportunity now.”
It’s not that Eastwood isn’t a sentimental man, he just doesn’t keep much fan mail.
He has an idea, however, where he’d hang the national gold medal should the city apply and receive it.
And there’s another national nod he keeps around his office now. It’s a picture of autumn-yellowed Tubbs Hill that the forestry committee snapped in 2008 when it was out inspecting trees. The city uploaded the picture on its website. The National Parks Service — the group that manages all the land and water and conservation funds in the country — asked the department for permission to use the image on an inside cover page for its 2008 budget. Permission was granted, and Tubbs Hill played a part in the budget pitch to Congress.
So there are still copies of that around the office.
“There’s no reason why not to go for it,” said Jim Hall, director of the Boise Parks and Recreation Department, who grew up in Moscow and is familiar with Coeur d’Alene’s parks. “I’m confident Coeur d’Alene is deserving, they’ve done a lot of wonderful work up there.”
There would be a lot of competition, the farthest west winner this year was in Wisconsin. But the place the medal would go, should it be won?
Out front, Eastwood said, none too specially. “So everyone who walks in the door can see it.”
Jane Houghton, former member of the urban forestry committee and member of the U.S. Forest Service, was photographed inspecting trees on Tubbs Hill. The photo was used by the National Parks Service on its 2008 budget packet it presented to the U.S. Congress.