Completion of Chief Gene Shepherd Park draws near

Township installs firehouse-themed playscapes and sand volleyball courts

By: Sarah Wojcik | Shelby - Utica News | Published August 28, 2013

 Shelby Township Fire Chief Jim Swinkowski and Treasurer Michael Flynn survey the new volleyball courts at Gene Shepherd Park.

Shelby Township Fire Chief Jim Swinkowski and Treasurer Michael Flynn survey the new volleyball courts at Gene Shepherd Park.

Photo provided by Shelby Township

SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Officials estimate that the park honoring the late fire chief, who passed away due to cancer last year, will be open to the public sometime this fall.

“There’s no one that deserves this treatment more than Gene Shepherd — he was a great man,” said Supervisor Rick Stathakis. “He became chief under my watch and we had a great relationship.”

Stathakis said that what once was a problem for Shelby Township has turned into a huge opportunity for the community to pay a special tribute to the past fire chief.

“All the way to the end, he was working and had a computer on his bed,” Stathakis said. “I went to the hospital, and we talked and it was like being at his desk. He didn’t miss a beat.”

The land that hosts Gene Shepherd Park was originally slated to be an indoor soccer arena, but wetland damage and public disapproval of the soccer dome resulted in lawsuits and ended the short-lived endeavor.

The current Shelby Township Fire Chief, Jim Swinkowski, said he knew Gene Shepherd even before Swinkowski got hired in 1991.

“He was a good person and dealt with it bravely,” he said. “A lot of us learned life lessons about humanity from his battle with cancer.”

Swinkowski said his kids, ages 10 and 12, have been avidly looking forward to the grand opening of Gene Shepherd Park and the playground equipment since he showed them initial plans for the park.

On Aug. 14, the township installed sand volleyball courts, fire engine play equipment and a red and black playscape. Officials also plan to construct a red and black pavilion, tack a large fire truck decal on the front of the clubhouse garage door and install soccer posts, tennis courts, bocce ball courts and a walking path.

Joseph Youngblood, director of the Parks, Recreation and Maintenance Department, said the location in the northwest portion of the township will provide the park experience to more people in the community.

“We’re trying to have something for everyone, for the kids up to senior citizens,” he said. “We’re really excited about Gene Shepherd Park.”

Shelby Township Treasurer Michael Flynn financed the entire project through alternative revenues, such as private donations from companies and individuals and cable TV income, with no use of taxpayer dollars. He estimated the total cost to be around $400,000 to $500,000.

“We wanted to get it done before wintertime, so that folks can get to enjoy it before the snow comes down, and have a grand opening in the fall,” Flynn said. “We want to get all of the firemen and invite the public for a grand opening so they can see what the park is all about.”

Flynn mentioned that another draw for Gene Shepherd Park is its close proximity to Yates Cider Mill, so park-goers can enjoy cider and doughnuts while at the park.

“It’s really been a team effort between the Board of Trustees, Parks and Rec, engineering, and attorneys that dealt with the (Department of Environmental Quality) and has taken five years to get to this place,” Flynn said. “That’s what makes it even more sweet: that we have been working on it for such a long time.”

The Charter Township of Shelby’s Facebook page has a photo album titled “Construction of Chief Gene Shepherd Park,” which will be updated periodically as more work is done on the park.