KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

KEIZERTIMES/Andrew Jackson

By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

As Keizer’s parks and facilities supervisor, one of Robert Johnson’s most rewarding jobs is planting a tree.

“I can plant one and, in seven or eight years, drive by and there is a family having a picnic in its shade,” Johnson said.

However, that one tree can command a lot of attention over the course of its life. Priority No. 1 is water. Many of Keizer’s parks have built-in irrigation systems, but the head that delivers water to the tree might be 15 years old, and it had an expected life of 10 years. If the head is in a high-traffic area, it may be stepped on repeatedly during the course of a day and need regular adjusting to ensure proper flow. Trees also get sick or infested with any number of critters, and Johnson may need to enlist a tree specialist to diagnose a problem and then add the needed treatment plan into an already busy schedule. If the tree was planted near the park’s edge and it grows into a neighboring yard, it’s going to need to be limbed, and it may even need to be limbed regularly to ensure healthy growth. The grass around the tree also needs to be cut regularly to maintain usability. Weeds and invasive species in the area need to be removed. And let’s not forget the leaves. Come fall, the tree is going to drop its haul on the grass below and, the longer they sit, the more damage they are going to do to the grass. Blowing leaves and hauling them out is going to require more time and money, instead Johnson and Don Shelton, Keizer’s other full-time parks employee, keep mowers running well into November for leaf control if the weather permits.

All that is for one tree. Keizer has 240 acres of park space.

“I’m always looking for a better way to do something and tweaking things a little bit at a time, but I feel like we’re running out of tweaks,” Johnson said.

City officials are trying to figure out a way to increase funds available for parks maintenance and improvements, likely through a fee added to utility bills. To understand how the fee would support parks employees’ efforts, I accompanied Johnson as he made his rounds Thursday morning, Aug. 11.

The magic hour is 6:30 to 7:30 a.m.

Johnson, Shelton and one of the city’s two seasonal workers start early to get a jump on some maintenance issues.

Shelton goes to the dog park at Keizer Rapids Park to fix a leaky dog fountain. Johnson heads to Claggett Creek Park to check on irrigation. After 7:30 a.m., residents start showing up with their pets for morning exercise and firing off the irrigation system can drench an unsuspecting visitor.

Johnson drives up to the control box and points out some of the larger dry spots in the turf as he does.

“I noticed these a couple of days ago, and usually it is a sign of the heads not working properly,” he said. “Because of limited funding, we can only change them when they break. That’s an issue because you’re not being proactive, you’re chasing problems.”

He checks two different areas of the park and finds some heads that need to be adjusted. Nothing that needs to be replaced, but several of the heads are clearly limping along trying to perform their duty.

The next stop is Keizer Rapids Park at the west end of Chemawa Road North. Past the main park entrance, the road turns to gravel with some additional parking areas for those choosing to enter the most heavily-wooded section. The gravel road has caught the attention of drivers looking to do doughnuts. That would be a problem in and of itself, but the vehicles have struck a fence separating the park from a quarry and it’s up to Johnson to attend to it. He takes photos of a half-dozen spots where the fence has separated from support poles.

“The reality is my guys don’t have time to take care of this, so I have to call a contractor and get them to fix it,” Johnson said. More money disappears from his budget.

Whenever Johnson visits a park, he tries to check in on all areas, so the trip includes a quick drive down an asphalt road leading deeper into the park. The roadway is pitted with deep potholes, one side of the road is bermed with bark chips, the other is slowly turning into a mess because off-road vehicles churned up mud during wet weather. There are already a couple of visitors parking and owners unloading canine friends. Despite adding the road to the list of things the parks crew is responsible for, no additional funding was attached.

“We had a little money left over at the end of June so we bought some rock. We’ll use that to fill the holes and build up the side of the road, but all the problems are going to come back. We also got some free wood chips from a local business that we’ll use to build up berms in the areas where people are mudding,” Johnson said. “A cheap fix is still a fix, but it’s not exactly solving the problem.”

A month and a half after purchase, both the gravel and the bark chips still sit in piles because the project hasn’t yet risen to the top of the priority list.

“There’s things that are higher up. And, at any time, someone can call us and we’ve got to drop everything we’re doing and go chase down another problem,” Johnson said.

The busy season for the Keizer’s parks workers is April through September, which means the budget (July to June) lines up just about as poorly as it could. By the end of June, Johnson is counting every penny and waiting for the solvency July brings.

“It’s very challenging and oftentimes things need to wait,” he said. “We had a couple of trees that were growing in the park, but also into a neighbor’s yard – like 30 to 40 feet into her yard – enough that they were impacting her fruit trees and affecting her garden’s growth. She told me about it last year, but our tree money was long gone and it wasn’t a safety issue. I promised her that when the cycle started over she would be first on our list, and we finally got it done last month.”

One of the future amenities for Keizer Rapids is a long and wide field at the edge of the park bordering the Willamette River. Because current funding can’t cover the costs of irrigation, the field is currently a thigh-high tangle of brambles, blackberries and brown grasses. Plans also call for some covered picnic areas in the space, but even if the funding were available tomorrow, it would take a while to rehabilitate the turf.

“The thing is people are hungry for this space, I’ve gotten call after call after call this summer from people hoping to reserve a picnic spot here and we don’t have anything to offer them,” Johnson said. “We don’t have anything to reserve down here other than the amphitheater.”

Johnson’s interim fix is mowing the grass closest to the woods as short as he can. It’s not attractive, but it reduces the chance of a fire spreading to the wooded area. The primary misconception is that the park is fully developed and that’s fairly adrift from reality. Volunteer labor and local business support has installed everything from the amphitheater to The Big Toy to the dog park and sand volleyball courts, but the city hasn’t been able to contribute much more than the purchase of land for future development.

“There’s also a problem in developing parks in stages rather than all at once. You are constantly running into issues that no one anticipated,” Johnson said.

Despite that, Johnson still finds ways to improve the parks in ways that provide increased safety as well as beautification. For example, the front fence of The Big Toy sits only about 10 yards from the parking lot. Johnson was concerned that a distracted driver might hit the wrong pedal and go careening into the play area. He built up a two-foot berm that will high-center a runaway car and populated it with a garden of native plants. Ideally, he’s hoping school groups that visit the park use the space for education while they help pull weeds and do some minor pruning.

Next year, a grant will be used to install a rubberized surface at The Big Toy, additional pedestrian pathways and the city’s first flushing toilets in a park. It’s a double-edged sword.

“The rubberized surface is a huge benefit because that means we don’t have to hassle with wood chips. The pathways are needed because right now we have moms with strollers fighting for the same space as cars. The bathrooms are needed, I want them, but I don’t have the manpower to maintain them,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s next stop is Bair Park in north Keizer. Several years ago, the park was hardly usable. It had been overrun with a deep thicket of blackberries, but Johnson made the park a priority. Regular mowing and a concerted effort to remove the invasive species have turned it into a natural space that several area residents walk through in the few minutes he spends on the site. He’s also checking on some trees recently planted, a park neighbor is volunteering to help water trees and maintain the entrance.

Most calls Johnson receives start as a complaint, but he usually ends up trying to enlist the caller as a volunteer.

“They have certain things they want to see done, and I usually have a list ready to go, but we develop the relationships and sometimes the bigger projects result from that,” he said. He wishes he had more time to spend working with volunteers and enlisting new ones.

Eagle Scouts looking to complete community service requirements are some of his favorite people. Scouts have helped refurbish a shelter and a bridge at Bob Newton Park in the Gubser neighborhood, which is Johnson’s next stop.

Newton Park is a decent example of the kinds of sacrifices made in Keizer parks. Johnson would like to see better weed control, landscaped entrances, a pair of horseshoe pits could be rehabbed, and then there’s the tennis court. The court surface has one crack running its entire length and it’s beginning to branch.

“This surface is still playable, but it needs attention. We need to fill those cracks because, right now, the water is still getting in. If enough water gets in, the foundation is going to settle unevenly and make the whole thing unusable,” he said.

Resurfacing the court would cost about $8,000 to $10,000. Ripping it out and starting over, which is what will have to happen if it settles, would cost $60,000.

One of the many things that gets lost in the struggle to simply maintain what currently exists in Keizer parks is beautification.

“I would love to have all the entries bark dusted and landscaped, but we simply can’t afford it and it means there’s no curb appeal,” he said. “If someone moves here and they decide to go to a park, they’re going to get in the car, drive around and then make a decision whether to get out at each place they stop. They might go from Keizer to Salem before they pull the trigger.”

The first complaint call of the day comes in about 8 a.m. Someone visited The Big Toy the night before and found feces in one of the turrets. The origin was unknown, but it meant Johnson had to stop what he was doing and find someone in the vicinity of the park who could go check on it. Fortunately, Shelton was just finishing his repairs on the dog park leak.

While complaints come in from all over the city, one park has become so high-maintenance that Johnson has to schedule one of his two seasonal workers around its operation – Chalmers-Jones Park and the splash fountain.

“I basically lost a seasonal worker,” Johnson said. “Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing like seeing 30 kids out there on a hot day, but it requires a lot of attention. Every time something goes wrong, he’s out here fixing it and, when he’s not doing that, he’s handling reservations. He also has to get everything tested and ready to go each morning it’s open, he’s barely able to get away to do some of the other things that need doing.”

The current budget only allows Johnson to tackle one major project a year, this year it will be repaving the parking lot at the south end of Claggett Creek Park. Last year, it was resurfacing a tennis court at Willamette Manor Park in south Keizer.

That tennis court had gotten so bad that most of the contractors Johnson asked for bids wouldn’t touch it without starting over. He eventually found one who would, and the new surface is smooth, green, inviting and has a new use as well.

“I’d been getting a lot of calls from people asking if we had any pickleball courts. I had no idea what that even was, but I started doing some research and then got another call from a guy who said we could fit two pickleball courts on a tennis court if there was enough room. We came down here and measured and then added the stripes to the court refurb,” Johnson said.

While it can seem like an unneeded expense, Johnson views it as precisely the opposite.

“A lot of the calls about pickleball were from retired people, people we don’t get enough of in our parks. Those courts are a way to draw new users into the fold,” he said.

Bringing new users into the parks serves two purposes. Primarily, it shows there is a need for the spaces Keizer is providing, but it also increases safety.

“If somebody comes to a park looking to vandalize something and they find people already there, they are going to go somewhere else, or at least spend more time thinking about what it is they planned to do and whether they should do it,” Johnson said.

And there are more than enough community-inflicted wounds already. Cleaning graffiti is a daily chore for the seasonal workers. Wooden picnic tables are also a prime target.

“The minute those tables show any signs of wear, someone flips them over and jumps on them until they are flattened,” he said.

He prefers tables with galvanized metal legs that stand up to the weather and the most punishing abuses. A cheaper, wooden table might last three to five years with favorable weather, but the more costly metal-legged ones are expected to last 20.

Johnson is loathe to prioritize one park over another, but pressed he said Meadows Park in north Keizer and Witham Park in east Keizer are ones he has his eyes on.

“Meadows needs a new play structure, better pathways and a sheltered picnic area. Witham has a great community garden, but nothing else for an area of the community that is pretty densely populated,” he said. “We could easily put some irrigation in, a shelter, horseshoe pits, a small court and you’d have a neat little park – if we had the money.”

Johnson isn’t looking for a monetary windfall as far as funding, he chose to stick in Keizer because he enjoys the way the city gets things done. But the Keizer park system has reached critical mass and, as he said, he’s running out of tweaks.

“It’s hard to talk about adding new things when you can’t maintain the things you’ve already got, but I really think that most of the residents would be willing to pay a little more if it meant they didn’t have to volunteer their time to take care of a park. There’s still a lot of volunteers in this city, but they plug in in different ways than they used to.”