Columbia’s Hyatt Park could be so much more than what it is today, residents of the surrounding neighborhood say. They want renovations at the 11.5-acre park in North Columbia, and they’re upset at what they say have been the city’s broken promises.
By Avery Wilks
May 7, 2014
Lyman Munson lives a block from North Columbia’s Hyatt Park, but when he and his 7-year-old son want to enjoy nature, they drive about 2 miles to downtown’s Riverfront Park.
Hyatt Park “as a place of tranquility and beauty, doesn’t exist,” Munson said.
Instead, Hyatt Park’s facilities are outdated, the grounds are unattractive and its 11.5 acres don’t foster a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere, say neighborhood leaders and some of those who use it.
Take a walk through the park, where Monticello Road splits from North Main Street, and you can’t miss the massive red-brick community center, outdoor basketball courts, closed concession stand or pair of baseball diamonds contained by rusty fencing.
Venture to the park’s spacious southern half, and you’ll find scattered pine trees, two small playgrounds and several storm drains marking the spring-fed creeks that once ran above ground.
But one thing’s likely to be missing – people.
Hyatt Park could become a vibrant community hub if residents’ suggestions were followed, said Michael Gibbs Hill, president of the Hyatt Park‑Keenan Terrace neighborhood association. The community needs an attractive meeting place for its residents, many of whom lead “parallel lives that don’t necessarily intersect,” Hill said.
The residents’ wish list includes more picnic tables, a walking trail and new playgrounds as well as bigger renovations, like uncovering the underground springs or turning at least one rarely used baseball diamond into a multipurpose field.
When a park is improved to that extent, it can work wonders for community pride, said J. Robert Rossman, a retired professor, most recently at Illinois State University, who has worked in parks and recreation administration since 1968.
Hear Lyman Munson explain his disappointment that Hyatt Park hasn’t been redeveloped.
Hear Ellen Triplett detail her vision for Hyatt Park.
Listen to Ellen Triplett express her frustration about how Columbia has taken care of Hyatt Park.
Listen to Michael Gibbs Hill talk about how having a vibrant park would boost community morale.
Read the executive summary of the Columbia parks department’s overall master plan. (PDF)
View a map of how Hyatt Park would look if the improvements listed in the 2009 master plan were completed. (PDF)
View the list of renovations in the 2009 master plan for Hyatt Park. (PDF)
Beautifying the park would also be likely to boost park safety, he said, as well as increase property values and attract new businesses – something the community has struggled to do for over a decade.
But Columbia has “dragged its feet” to help Hyatt Park, said 70-year-old Tommy Burkett, who has lived his entire life in the neighborhood.
“We’ve been treated like the red-headed stepchild of the city for 30 years, 40 years,” said Burkett, who remembers crawfishing in the creek as a child when Hyatt Park was a “full-fledged park.”
Now, he said, it’s “so outdated it’s unreal.”
Hyatt Park was a bustling gathering place for Eau Claire residents more than a century ago, with an auditorium, flowing creeks and even a zoo. But it fell into disrepair soon after the Columbia annexed Eau Claire in 1955, Burkett said.
The community began pushing Columbia to revive the park roughly 25 years ago, and in the mid-1990s the city built the Leroy Moss Community Center, now home to roughly two dozen programs for children and adults.
“We started the revitalization of Hyatt Park, and it’s still going on,” said Bill Manley, who has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years. “We’ve got to keep pushing.”
In 2009, the city met with a committee of neighborhood residents and had a master plan prepared that included up to $2 million in improvements. Several residents said they thought the city had set aside the money.
Not so, and no official had authority to promise the money, said Allison Baker, the city’s senior assistant city manager.
Miscommunication – or no communication at all – ranks high on the list of residents’ complaints.
“It’s kind of like a black hole about the park and what the city is doing about it,” Munson said, adding that he would use the park were it renovated. “Is there any timing for the funding? What exactly are we going to be funding? I’m in the dark.”
Residents gave city officials an earful in a March 2013 meeting. The city resolved smaller issues, like a broken door at the community center, within a few weeks. But the larger projects remain untouched.
City officials said then the cost of those improvements had risen to $2.2 million, said Ellen Triplett, a former neighborhood association president.
Jeffrey Caton, who took over Columbia’s parks in 2012, takes responsibility for the improvements’ being shelved but said the neighborhood shouldn’t expect to see them soon.
The parks department’s new master plan emphasizes resolving safety and liability issues first as money is available and then moving on to making sure park facilities and equipment work properly.
Aesthetics issues – such as Hyatt Park’s proposed renovations – are last in line for the department and its $10.6 million budget (PDF) this year.
“It may be some time at the current pace if we ever get to the functional issues, much less the nice-to-have aesthetic things,” Caton said. “It takes money.”
City Councilman Sam Davis, who represents the area, said he hopes the council will shift its attention to Hyatt Park now that $3.4 million in renovations at nearby Earlewood Park are done. Davis said he’s working to get money for Hyatt Park in this year’s budget, which must be approved by June 30.
City officials say finding the money will take several years and a variety of sources. And Davis said the city would need to revisit the 2009 plan to determine which projects are practical.
Triplett and some of her neighbors are skeptical they’ll ever see all those improvements. But she also keeps hoping some are on the way.
“Sometimes it feels like we’ve been beating our heads against the wall, but change sometimes is slow,” Triplett said. “Our neighborhood is never defeated. We have good folks who believe in the community. It will happen.”