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Clash over park damage

Marie Havenga • Jul 11, 2019 at 1:00 PM

Last month's Spring Lake Heritage Festival left lasting memories for many who attended it, but it also apparently left grass and rut damage to Mill Point Park, and the Village Council would like the festival committee to pay to fix it.

No cost estimates are in yet, but village staff believes “several thousand dollars” worth of repairs are needed.

“There's all sorts of damage to Mill Point Park done by Heritage Festival,” Village Manager Chris Burns said. “It's mostly to the sod and grass. Where they had their foam party, there's zero grass left.”

The site of the June 14 foam party in front of the park's bandshell is roped off with fencing after village Department of Public Works staff reseeded the bare soil with grass seed.

Burns said ruts are also an issue.

“People drove on the grass and left huge ruts,” she said. “They knew they should not have been driving on that. There should have been hand carts. Our DPW was just devastated when they went in there (June 17).”

DPW Director Wally Delamater said on a scale of 1 to 10, his crew was at an “8 or 9” in frustration level after viewing the park.

Delamater said he had held a pre-festival meeting with Heritage Festival committee members prior to the event.

“At the pre-meeting, we said if it's wet out, don't drive in the park,” Delamater recalled.

The Wooden Boat Show, which had been scheduled for early June and chaired by Village Councilman Mark Miller, was canceled due to soggy conditions at Mill Point Park, as well as fear of turf damage from driving boat trailers in and out.

Besides the grass kill at the site of the foam/dance party, Delamater said the ruts need to be dealt with — both in the park and in the grass behind the nearby factory building.

“They were stuck all over that and tore that up,” he said.

Delamater is tracking expenses, and said his crew likely won't tackle the ruts until the fall.

“If I had known they were going to do this on already wet ground, I would have referred this to (the village manager) and recommended not to do this here," he said.

Burns said Heritage Festival committee members were “fully aware” of the condition of the park when they left.

Festival committee responds

The festival committee's president, Steve VanBelkum, said the village staff is exaggerating the damages.

“I looked at it,” he said. “They made it worse than it really is. Originally, there was a little area in front of the bandshell (of compromised grass from the foam party). I went there yesterday. They made it two times bigger than it really was. Yesterday, it was probably a 25-foot circle that they fenced off, which is stupid, but that's our village. The actual area might have been a 12-foot diameter.”

VanBelkum said the 2018 foam party also damaged a small patch of grass, but it grew back quickly.

“We did it last year and had the same thing,” he said. “By the end of July, the grass came up greener than it was before. It's just grass. It will come back.”

VanBelkum said he can't control event-goers who were parking in the grass behind the factory building adjacent to Mill Point Park.

“They were driving through there,” he said. “There was very little damage other than one rut up by Exchange Street. There's a lot of damage now because the village hasn't bothered to do anything with the park. People are driving all over the place.”

VanBelkum said no committee members drove on the grass during festival events.

“We followed the bike path,” he said.

Some of the “cookers” during the June 13 Wings on the Water event drove across the lawn to set grills in place.

“But even after Wings, there was hardly anything (damage) there — nothing that Mother Nature wouldn't have taken care of in a week or so," VanBelkum said. "Even now, you can't see any of those ruts.”

Bad blood

VanBelkum said he gets the feeling village staff wants to end the Heritage Festival.

“They no longer help us at all,” he said. “Last year, we got help from the DPW with fencing and turning on the lights. This year, we got nothing. There were no parking lot lights this year. The restrooms were filthy.

"I've mentioned to Christine (Burns) several times the restrooms are falling apart and drains are falling out of the floor," he continued. "They don't keep the park up. If they're going to charge me, I think the people of the village should charge them.”

VanBelkum said he just learned that the village wants to invoice the Heritage Festival committee for damages, but he has not had a chance to meet with other committee members to discuss the potential reimbursement issue.

The festival typically costs about $45,000 to put on. After grants and donations, the committee pays about $20,000 each year to run the event.

The committee also spends about $6,000 per year to bring musicians to the Thursdays at the Point concert series at Mill Point Park. Huntington Bank chips in another $3,000 annually for that.

VanBelkum said he believes the Heritage Festival and its volunteers contribute much to the fabric of the community, and its quality of life.

Karla Constantine, who has been a member of the Heritage Festival committee for more than a quarter of a century, resigned late last month, due in part to what she feels is a lack of support from village management.

“Village Council has not been festival-friendly since Chris Burns came on board,” Constantine said. “It has just gotten worse year after year. This year, we didn't get any help from the DPW, which has been the first time. I resigned because it got to the point where I didn't feel our committee did enough to involve the council and it wasn't my place to do that."

Constantine said the grass was soggy, but it wasn't “killed” by the festival there.

Village Councilwoman Michelle Hanks acknowledged the seemingly “bad blood” between the festival committee and village staff, particularly Burns. Hanks said she volunteered to approach festival committee members, since she implied they don't view Burns in a positive manner.

Hanks, along with several other council members, believe Heritage Festival funds should pay for the damages. Burns said the village's Parks and Recreation Commission recently agreed on the reimbursement.

Hanks said people should have known better than to drive on wet grass.

“They knew what was happening when they were driving on it,” she said. “I feel any reasonable person would have stopped.”

Long-time Village Councilman Scott VanStrate said the festival committee does many great things for the community — raising money and putting it back into the community. The festival has paid for the flag pole/military tribute at Mill Point Park, flags in the Spring Lake Township Cemetery and more.

The committee is an independent, nonprofit organization and not part of the village structure. It raises its own funds and pays for the festival events.

“They do so many good things, I wonder if we could split the cost with them,” VanStrate posed.

Burns said cost-sharing would not be fair to other organizations.

“How is that fair to Rotary?” she asked. “They give us thousands of dollars every year.”

Village President Mark Powers said he would like to see the festival continue.

“As a first step, let's just go talk to them,” he said. “We don't have to go there with a bill and say, 'You've got to pay this.' Let's bring it up first and see where it goes. Heritage Festival is something people feel keenly about. We want to continue it because people like it and it's a decent thing for the community.”

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