Merced officials launch $2.6 million McNamara Park renovation

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comNovember 1, 2013 

Kirk Wright stood in McNamara Park on Friday, staring at the city’s plans to overhaul the roughly 70-year-old park.

He remembered hanging out in the park as a youngster, whether he was at work or at play. “I was a lifeguard for about five years,” the 59-year-old south Merced resident said.

The park looks different from the way it did back then, and it’s going to see some more changes starting next week when contractors begin its $2.6 million revamp. Area officials and local residents showed up Friday for a ceremonial groundbreaking.

The almost 9-acre park on Canal Street dates to the 1940s. Wright said he remembers going to the pool in the ’50s.

The softball and baseball diamonds now go mostly unused, Wright said. According to city officials, the diamonds haven’t been used by a city-sponsored league in a decade. Wright said he’s happy about the coming upgrades. “I think it’s fantastic – long overdue,” he said.

Plans for park upgrades include converting a softball field into two gated soccer fields with artificial turf and creating an all-purpose grass field. Playground equipment and walkways also will be improved. Additions include Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant ramps, security cameras, artwork, security lighting and splash pad – a fountain that children can play in.

City Recreation Supervisor Joey Chavez said the decision to forgo diamonds for soccer pitches was based on the needs of the recreation leagues.

Ever since the softball leagues shifted to the almost 28-acre Joe Herb Park, Chavez said, McNamara Park’s diamonds went silent. Merced is home to both practice and games for Merced Youth Soccer and Atlas Soccer, he said, for a total of about 2,000 local children.

McNamara’s addition of two multipurpose fields can meet some of that demand and be used for flag football and other sports.

“Before, soccer used to go six months out of the year, now it’s 12 months,” Chavez said, adding there is demand for more soccer space. “This is just going to be a dent in it; we still need eight more fields.”

An organizer for Merced Youth Soccer, Sonya Severo, praised the changes to be made to the park. She said more than 1,200 youngsters from her league can be found playing in parks all over Merced on any Saturday.

Soccer is popular internationally and Severo said it’s a good way to keep children fit and introduce them to organized athletics.

“It’s a sport that emphasizes consistent conditioning, running and team spirit,” she said. “And kids absolutely adore it.”

Not everybody at Friday’s groundbreaking was ecstatic about the coming changes.

Almetres Huddleston, 81, said she has been visiting the park since 1948, before there were even trees. As a member of advocacy group Perry-Oakley, she was involved in the push for improvements to the park. “To get the grant to improve the park, we’re very pleased about that,” she said, but she would rather the park have more variety than just soccer fields. She said there are many children in south Merced who don’t play soccer.

Her organization was also involved in the reopening of McNamara’s pool last year after the 2011 closure.

The planned changes to the park are bittersweet for Walter Smith, 57, as he checked out the city’s blueprints for swapping out the diamonds.

He remembers not having the money to get into the park’s pool as a child. He would wait for a softball player to knock the ball over the fence, where he and other children would scramble to get it.

“We’d catch the ball over there and bring the ball in,” Smith said. “They’d give us a ticket and we’d go swimming at the pool.”

Smith said it’s good to see the park get a revamp, especially if he can see a diverse group of children kicking a ball around on the new soccer fields.

Although, he said, it’s sad to see the softball diamonds go.

“I’m kind of going to miss it,” he said.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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