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West Modesto residents raise question of fairness with city over kids’ recreation

A new pavilion is being built at Mellis Park in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2019.
A new pavilion is being built at Mellis Park in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2019.

Modesto expected to turn its splash fountains on this Memorial Day weekend at six city parks so kids can keep cool on hot days this summer as they dash and dart through the jets of cold water.

But several west Modesto residents and advocates say they still are waiting for the city to install splash fountains, also known as splash pads, at Mellis Park after they say city officials said they would do so about a dozen years ago.

The park — which is on South Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and next to the King-Kennedy Memorial Center — is one of the focal points of west Modesto, an ethnically diverse community with many low- and moderate-income families.

“ ... We’ve been asking for the splash pad for over 12 years, 12 years,” Sterling Fountain told City Council members at a recent meeting. “Action plans have come and gone, budget cuts have come and gone, and we still have no splash pad. It seems trivial to you guys, but it’s very important to the west side.

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“There is no public place for the children to go. I know years ago we could go to Modesto High ... There is no place for the children to have an out, with refreshing water, with cool water.”

Fountain is president of the King-Kennedy Memorial Center Board of Directors and one of several community members who addressed the council at its May 14 meeting before it approved an annual plan to spend several million dollars in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds on affordable housing, homeless projects and other efforts to help low- and moderate-income residents and neighborhoods.

Fountain told council members that because the annual plan did not include splash fountains at other parks, she was fine with continuing to work with the city on splash fountains for Mellis.

Councilman Tony Madrigal, whose district includes west Modesto, tried to get his council colleagues to amend the plan to include splash fountains for Mellis but could not gather support.

His effort came after city officials said they held several community meetings, including in west Modesto, on how to spend the money. Officials said the plan was due to HUD within days and changing it at that late date would be very difficult.

“Splash pads at Mellis Park are long overdue,” Madrigal said in an interview. “I’m going to do everything I can in collaboration with community leaders and other voices to see if we get one built sooner because there is definitely an unmet need.”

The splash fountains are among the concerns west Modesto residents have raised repeatedly over the years with the city. Those concerns include repairing the front doors at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center as well as the center’s flag pole. Those fixes have been made but came after years of complaints.

“It’s been one thing after another,” said west Modesto resident and King-Kennedy board member George Russell in an interview. “They have promised the west side a lot of things.”

There are splash fountains at Marshall Park, which is two-fifths of a mile from Mellis. But Russell said Marshall serves a different neighborhood and is too far for parents without cars to walk with their young children. Mellis Park also is home to an active Boys & Girls Club.

Modesto has splash fountains at 10 city parks and planned to turn the fountains on at six parks Saturday afternoon. The fountains operate 2 to 6 p.m. daily through Labor Day. The splash fountains at George Rogers and Marshall parks and the Lions Junction on the Virginia Corridor are closed because of vandalism.

The city hopes to open the splash fountains within a couple of weeks at Marshall and Lions Junction. There is no estimate for George Rogers. A city official said the fountains are closed at Creekwood Park, and there is no estimate for when they will resume.

Russell said that when Modesto removed the wading pool at Mellis Park about a dozen years ago, parks and recreation officials then said the city would install splash fountains. Because of tight budgets, Modesto since the early 2000s has closed all the pools it had at city parks except for the wading pool at Graceada Park.

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A new pavilion is being built at Mellis Park in Modesto, Calif., Thursday, May 23, 2019. Andy Alfaro

City officials say they are listening and working with west Modesto residents and advocates.

“I understand the concerns and frustrations that the citizens have expressed and experienced,” Parks, Recreation & Neighborhoods Director Laurie Smith said in an email. “Since becoming the director of PR&N almost a year ago, I have worked closely with the West Modesto Community Collaborative, the KKMC Board of Directors and members of the community and am encouraged that our partnership will result in continued progress.”

Smith, a longtime city employee, said she is the first Parks, Recreation & Neighborhoods director in several years.

That’s good news, according to Fountain, the King-Kennedy board president. “With Laurie Smith being now in her position, the trust is coming back,” Fountain said in an interview. “She has a genuine concern about the west side.”

Smith and city spokesman Thomas Reeves said Modesto is pursuing three strategies for Mellis Park. Officials are considering using HUD funding in next year’s spending plan or amending the current plan this fall to pay for the design work for splash fountains if funding becomes available.

The city also is pursuing state grants from Proposition 68, which was approved by voters last year. Smith said there are grants for parks and recreation in underserved communities.

Modesto plans on applying for millions in grants for a range of improvements at Mellis, Cesar Chavez and Mancini parks and is holding public meetings to gather input from the community. Smith said the grant applications are due in August, and Modesto should know within four to six months whether it will receive funding. The city has been successful in getting state grants for its parks.

Smith said the city also will look at community partnerships to improve Mellis Park. She said the city will look beyond west Modesto residents for those partnerships, including relationships with businesses and civic groups.

And the situation at Mellis Park is nuanced.

West Modesto Community Collaborative Executive Director Perfecto Munoz told council members at the May 14 meeting that his nonprofit and the West Modesto People of Action Council have been talking with city officials about the splash fountains but also asked officials to move forward first with projects that could be more easily accomplished.

That has included better lighting as well as new benches and renovating the pavilion area at the park.