Thursday, August 21, 2008

Residents Hope Funding Will Help Reclaim Charles Park's Beauty

By Nicole Turso

Overgrown baseball diamonds, caved in fencing, and crumbling tennis courts are just a few of the dilapidated conditions at Frank Charles Park in Howard Beach desperately in need of renovation and repair, and the reason for which residents and community leaders are championing for change.

Frank Charles Park, 21 acres of land off of Jamaica Bay under the jurisdiction of the National Parks Service (NPS) and Gateway National Recreation, is the premiere park in the Howard Beach area—used by residents of surrounding neighborhoods stretching through Ozone Park for tennis matches, baseball games or a jog.

The park however, is showing its wear and tear.

Upon a quick survey of the park, it is clear that residents have a case. What used to be pristine baseball diamonds in years past now lack definition—weeds and grass cover the base paths. The tennis courts are littered with debris of seashells dropped by area birds, dangerous to the many children who take summer lessons. Dead trees and dying shrubs line the outskirts of the park.

“This park has really deteriorated over the last three years,” local resident and frequenter of Charles Park, Anthony Lasaracina explained. “We aren’t just talking about new ballfields or putting new tennis courts in. Besides that, a lot of these things are maintenance issues.”

And the park has not been without funds. According to Public Affairs Officer Brian Feeney of the NPS, which oversees 26,000 acres of the Gateway National Recreation area, of the $25 million annual budget, $7.5 million is appropriated to the Jamaica Bay Unit, which includes the upkeep of Frank Charles Park.

Additional funding over the past few years also included a $1 million congressional earmark in 2000, petitioned for by The Friends of Charles Park Committee and Congressman Anthony Weiner in which various restoration projects and improvements were made.

Federal funding however, is not the only money being used to update Frank Charles Park; the not-for-profit Friends of Charles Park Committee has also sunk money into the park on a number of occasions. “In the last 13 years we’ve dumped $2.5 million into the park, that’s a lot of money,” said Director of the Friends of Charles Park Committee Dorothy McCloskey. “Two-and- a-half million dollars for a not-for-profit group made up of general citizens made a big difference in the park.”

Five thousand dollars of the money was allocated to digging out and relaying the baseball fields, which have now been included in a capital project along with the tattered tennis courts in yet another congressional earmark of $1 million, this time, facilitated by Congressman Gregory Meeks.

Congressman Meeks met with Gateway General Superintendent Barry Sullivan last week to discuss the park. According to NPS, both the congressman and superintendent agreed the park would proceed with planning a $600,000 turf management program, along with upgrades and repairs to fencing and park benches as part of the $1 million earmark. Maintenance issues were also discussed.

Public Relations Officer Feeney addressed residents concerns over the perceived neglect of duties by the park workers. In an e-mail he writes: “The maintenance workers assigned to Frank Charles Park are dedicated to doing the very best job possible. However, given the 25% reduction in overall staffing that is a result of Gateway’s eroding budget situation, there is only so much that can be done.”

The NPS also explained that additional summer seasonal staff was hired this past year through the National Park Service Centennial Initiative, which have helped with the maintenance situation at Frank Charles Park. They expect additional maintenance help for several more summers.

But the signs of neglect continue, as fencing falls in on the baseball fields, McCloskey explains that the repair will cost at least seven thousand dollars and has been in such a condition for several months. Water fountains and irrigation systems have been turned off because they are in need of repair, and gates taken off of the fields, leaving them vulnerable to after-hours vandalism.

“Nobody is facilitating a comprehensive maintenance plan for all of Gateway National Recreation,” says McCloskey, “At Charles Park, because this is where we live, it’s our worry. In Rockaway, they have the same worries, and they are doing the same kind of fight over at Riis Park and Fort Tilden. We are well aware of the fiscal crisis, but we have to maintain this park.”

McCloskey explained that as the situation rolls on, more residents are getting involved and trying to form additional not-for-profit groups and clubs to maintain the park on a volunteer basis.

“Who’s watching the National Parks Service? The Friends of Charles Park Committee, the community of Howard Beach and its surrounding communities,” McCloskey said, “We are doing the best we can and we are getting the job done.”

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