by BETH ALTENA
When Plainfield Township Parks and Recreation Director John Short began work here 18 years ago, he was given the challenge of developing for recreation 300 acres of property off Ten Mile Road for public use. “We looked at the budget and there was just no way,” he said.
Today, passersby can see the physical transformation of that same property—proof that a way has been found. According to Short, it is the result of luck, good timing, and incredible cooperation between different governmental units, the private sector and individual citizens.
Today drivers can see evidence of the nine million dollar project and excavating job as hilly property is transformed into level plateaus suitable for ball fields, soccer fields, bathrooms and parking. Soon the vista off Ten Mile will expand as excavators knock down a hill and fill a valley with 35,000 cubic yards of earth.
When all phases of the multiple recreation projects concurrently being developed on the acreage are done, the community will have gained a world-class Olympic-style archery facility, a seven and a half-mile scenic mountain biking trail, a Miracle Field handicap-accessible ball field with endless uses, an eleven-field baseball-softball complex (as future phases are completed), two regulation college-quality soccer fields, a BMX motocross track and a sledding hill with a warming shelter. Plus bathrooms and parking, and—if funding comes through—a handicap-accessible playground.
How did vacant land in an economy that has all levels of government striving to tighten budgets become such a vast project, which Short said all together will be about $12 to $15 million dollars in cost? Short sums it up as cooperation.
At one time the property was proposed as a golf course with residential and light industrial use, not quite the public recreational ideal that was intended for the 300 acre parcel. When the golf course/industrial/housing plan fell through, action on the land itself went dormant, although changes occurred around it.
Within the last ten years the Ten Mile Meijer store went in, and as part of the approval process, agreed to substantially fund upgrades to the infrastructure to the area, putting in sewer and water access. The road itself was widened and leveled out, using as fill the dirt excavated from property that will eventually be the archery complex. Both improvements were made before the current proposed projects were conceived, but both are vital to the development. Without sewer and water these projects would be less feasible if not possible at all, and ditto if the road couldn’t accommodate the traffic.
Short said that Kent County and Plainfield Township shared ownership of the acreage, and did some swapping of property to make these projects possible. The township gave up the future ballpark property, land just east of the landfill, 90 some acres. The County traded with them for the parcel to the south, including where the archery complex will be built, just south of the intersection of Ten Mile and Wolven.
Algoma Township had received a $500,000 grant to build the archery complex within Algoma Township’s borders. However, after learning their grant proposal was accepted, the original party on whose property it was slated to occupy backed out. Algoma was left with a grant but now had no place to build. The land swap put Plainfield Township in a position to lease the future archery complex land to Algoma Township, giving Algoma a place to build the complex rather than forfeiting the grant.
Ownership of the westernmost part of the acreage by Kent County allowed the County to transfer ownership to the West Michigan Sports Commission to build the ball field portion of the development. The WMSC then allowed the Miracle League of West Michigan use of a portion of that land to build the handicap accessible Miracle Field—and, if funds come through, the handicap-accessible playground. A parking lot dedicated to the Miracle Field which will make it easy for children with physical challenges to get to the playing field will also be built.
Just north of the archery complex, between that facility and the ball fields Plainfield Township is building two regulation college-sized soccer fields, one with gentle slopes going down to the field where families can sit and watch games, the other with land sloping away from the field, allowing for a winter sledding hill. There will be restrooms and a warming shelter in between the two fields.
Short said cooperation between the two townships of Algoma and Plainfield and Kent County has been “nothing short of phenomenal” in making the cluster of recreation opportunities possible. He also praised private parties—the West Michigan Sports Commission, Art Van as the ballfield’s prime sponsor, and other groups for making all this work.
The West Michigan Mountain Biking Association recently created the mountain bike path of the southern most portion of the land, sponsored by Merrill Shoes and Footwear. It will be over seven miles when constructed and maintained by the bike club. Short said in the first month that the trail opened this spring over 3000 users have taken advantage of the opportunity to ride through some “very, very scenic” landscape.
The newest addition to the development, unnamed at this point as a multiple recreation complex, is the soccer fields. He said The Soccer Club of Rockford has committed to providing goals and take care of the lining of the fields. Plainfield Township will maintain the restrooms and the sledding hill.
Short said the DNR is also a partner in much of the park development in Plaifield Township. The Trust Fund grants from oil and gas royalties allowed the township to build Versluis Park. The park was a million-dollar project that won awards for design, including the handicap-friendly boardwalk and fishing overlook.
More recently, DNR Trust Fund grants from gas mining allowed the township to purchase the former golf course property on West River Drive, now Grand Isle Park. That 60 acres was purchased with a $600,000 grant with the intent to return more of it to its natural state and create outdoor recreation for the public on the remainder.
On the property are deer, all sorts of wild fowl and birds of prey, foxes, sand hill cranes, “varmits,” and has had an osprey nest and is a hang out for hawks, owls and eagles. He said the cougar that caused sightings and speculation likely came through the land up the Grand River and followed the Rogue River northward.
Short said cooperation is key in the development of that park as well. An increase in wetland acreage is the result of an agreement with a local developer, Visser Brothers, who is eliminating wetlands on another property and is required to mitigate that elimination by replacing wetlands within the same watershed. The township had been planning the wetlands increase, but didn’t have a budget for the improvement. Visser had a need to do a project, and so the two entities worked out a deal. Additionally, as part of that agreement, the developer is also paving a road from one end of the park to the other, a pure bonus, in Short’s opinion.
The roadway for non-motorized vehicles, will allow the township to eventually connect the Grand Isle Park to the White Pine Trail to the west. To the east trail users will be able to head south and walk or bike to the Ada Township trail system or north west up to Cannonsburg and Cannon Township’s trail.
“That’s a $70,000 project that Visser is giving us,” Short stated. He said some of this cooperation has happened almost as hit-or-miss, but some is the result of looking to the future as current projects take place.
“You remember when the bridge at Northland Drive was replaced and that walkway was included in the design?” Short asked. “That wasn’t in the original design and Bob Homan (just retired Township Superintendent) insisted on that. That was his vision.” He said township leaders have long been planning ways to connect the different recreational opportunities for citizens, who identified outdoor recreation as high priorities on surveys.
At Grand Isle Park, a disk golf course will run along the Grand River. Here Short said individual sponsors will be allowed to pay the $800 to $1,000 cost of each hole and have their name on the hole for a period of some years as thanks. Those interested may contact Plainfield Township to find out more. Eventually soccer fields are slated for that park as well, but at a cost of $75,000 to $100,000 each, they will be far down the road unless funding appears.
Short said, despite nearly two-decades in the coming, many projects are now happening fast. The disc golf will be completed by this fall, as will the wetlands and paved trail at Grand Isle.
Up on Ten Mile, the Miracle Field is having a ground breaking Wednesday, May 15 at noon and is estimated to be complete this fall with play on the field in 2014. Short said the uses for such a field—with a rubber surface easy for wheelchairs and walkers to navigate—is endless. He said he has already heard talk of brining in wheelchair basketball competitions and other uses for the field. “The potential uses for a field like that are endless,” he said. “You can go on forever with what you can do on a field like that. Tony [Comden, West Michigan Miracle Field Director] is bringing a gem to this community.”
The West Michigan Sports Commission ball fields phase one will likely be finished this fall, but require one year for the grass to season before play begins in 2015. “Mike Guswiler [WMSC Director] has been amazing to work with. He not only has passion and vision for his part of this project, he has passion and vision for all the different components. He wants them all to be successful.”
The mountain biking trail is currently open and in use by the public, although more construction by the West Michigan Mountain Biking Association is planned this summer to complete the seven and a half mile of routes.
Short said what is the most beautiful aspect of such an unlikely combination of groups and uses for this large property is how each organization is helping and contributing to the success of the other. He said Kent County outdid itself in helping to make these uses possible. Algoma Township working with Plainfield Township and the County also took remarkable strides to pull the archery project through.
The involvement of private parties, the West Michigan Sports Commission, the Miracle League of West Michigan, all the recreational organizations, and the generous donations of sponsors, as well as individuals who have stepped to the plate, are momentous. “What we will end up with is something none of us could have been able to do alone,” Short said. “We will have a complex of a $12 million to $15 million facility that nobody could have afforded on their own.”
“What a marriage this has been,” Short exclaimed. “It’s phenomenal. When you talk about intergovernmental relationships, this is the gold standard. This is as good as it gets.”