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County parks navigate pandemic while planning for future

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published July 1, 2020

File photo by Deb Jacques

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MADISON HEIGHTS — While the Red Oaks Waterpark is closed for the 2020 season due to COVID-19, Oakland County officials are encouraging residents to go out and explore the other county properties, of which there are several in the city of Madison Heights.

At the same time, county officials are also planning for a myriad of improvements at the Red Oaks Waterpark, while also crafting a millage proposal for the general election this November, which if approved would better fund the county parks in general and mark the first millage increase for county parks since their formation more than 50 years ago.

In the city of Madison Heights, Oakland County maintains the Red Oaks Waterpark, located at 1455 E. 13 Mile Road; the Red Oaks Nature Center at Suarez Friendship Woods, across the street at 30300 Hales St.; the nearby Red Oaks Dog Park, located at 31353 Dequindre Road; the Red Oaks Youth Soccer Complex, located at 29601 John R Road; and the Red Oaks Golf Course, located at 29600 John R Road.

“The uniqueness of the five different assets in Madison Heights is pretty special,” said Dan Stencil, executive officer for Oakland County Parks and Recreation. “It also demonstrates the collaboration between units of government (at the city and county).”

The Red Oaks Waterpark is typically open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, providing an escape from the heat with its pools, children’s waterworks and Lazy River. However, at a time of a highly virulent pandemic that shows no signs of slowing, the waterpark is closed until at least the spring of 2021. Officials say it’s simply impractical to impose requirements on facial masks and social distancing in an aquatic environment. As such, guests and lifeguard staff alike would be at risk of contracting the coronavirus if the park were to open now.

For the time being, the waterpark staff have been given the opportunity to work different assignments at other county facilities, while the higher-ups develop plans for a multimillion-dollar capital improvement project at the waterpark that includes new children’s waterworks and shade features, as well as utilities for the eventual addition of a new restroom area, so that one doesn’t have to walk as far to go to the bathroom. The project is estimated to cost $1.8 million, including the new sanitary pump station.

The county also has aspirations of making other improvements throughout its parks, but to do so it will be seeking its first millage increase for park operations. Currently, roughly half of the park system’s revenue comes from a quarter-mill millage, while the other half comes from parking and program fees. At press time, details such as the potential cost of the millage were still being decided.

But regardless of what happens with the millage or pandemic, county officials are quick to note all of the great things that the local parks already offer. At the Red Oaks Nature Center, for example, a newer addition called the Storybook Trail recently received recognition from the National Association of Counties for its innovative implementation of children’s book pages on panels throughout the park, educating guests on insects hidden in the surrounding greenery.

Madison Heights City Councilman Robert Corbett said the city’s relationship with Oakland County Parks and Recreation has long been a fruitful one. This is perhaps most evident in the 25-year lease deal that the county signed to manage the Red Oaks Nature Center back at the height of the Great Recession, keeping the park open and operational at a time when the city’s finances were prohibitively tight.

“As a member of both the City Council and Parks and Recreation committee, I had the opportunity to participate in negotiations to lease the property to Oakland County. The acquisition of the park by the county was a wonderful opportunity for the residents of Madison Heights to preserve this quality-of-life jewel in our community,” Corbett said. “At the time, city revenues were severely cut, and it’s unlikely we would have been able to do much other than just shutter the facility and possibly keep a trail or two open for access. All structured activities or exhibits would have been unaffordable to maintain at the time.

“A great deal of credit goes to former city manager Jon Austin and the late mayor Edward Swanson,” Corbett continued. “Both of them understood the importance of these wooded acres to our community and led the way to preserving it for future generations. Also, a big debt of gratitude is owed to Oakland County coming to our assistance.  With their input and resources, we were able to upgrade numerous aspects of the park and offer an array of recreational programming. Oakland County Parks and Recreation really did make a difference here.”

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