County officials hear complaints about River Common upkeep

By Jennifer Learn-Andes - | September 7th, 2017 10:30 pm

The shabby appearance of the River Common recreation complex along the Susquehanna River has prompted complaints and sparked a discussion about solutions.

Luzerne County owns the downtown Wilkes-Barre park, which underwent a $23 million revamping unveiled in 2009 that included a new amphitheater, fishing pier/landing, and extensive landscaping.

“It needs a little TLC,” county Manager C. David Pedri said Thursday. “We have to take pride in it. This is a beautiful green space in the city of Wilkes-Barre utilized every day by our citizens.”

Pedri is asking county council members to allocate $10,000 in natural-gas recreation funding for park maintenance annually for five years.

As part of that proposal, King’s College and Wilkes University have each pledged to invest another $20,000 annually for event programming at the park, Pedri said. Their offer stemmed from the county’s push for payments in lieu of taxes or other assistance from tax-exempt entities.

An investment of $50,000 — with no impact on the county’s operating budget — could “make a difference and draw attention to the park,” Pedri said.

If the agreement with King’s and Wilkes is approved, both institutions and the county would appoint representatives to the volunteer Riverfront Parks Committee to help oversee how the funds are spent, Pedri said. This committee has been in charge of events at the River Common since the park’s 2009 redo because officials said cash-strapped county government was not equipped to take on that responsibility.

Pedri agreed to discuss the plans based on early discussions with the committee because county council set a Sept. 1 deadline for all entities — including the county itself — to submit requests for natural-gas funding. He expects to follow up with a proposed formal agreement on the River Common plan at council’s Sept. 26 meeting.

“I applaud the colleges for coming to the table with a healthy contribution to Luzerne County,” Pedri said. “The River Common is the last park here in the county, and it is the front yard for both King’s and Wilkes.”

The county transferred ownership of Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township and the Seven Tubs Nature Area in Plains Township to the state in 2015, and Whitewater Challengers maintains and operates soccer fields and other amenities at the county-owned Forty Fort Recreational Complex as part of a public-private partnership.

‘Little shocked’

County Councilman Harry Haas raised the issue of the River Common’s appearance during a work session last month, saying the grass grew too high before a recent mowing. Several citizens complained to him.

“It just doesn’t look very nice,” Haas said. “People are concerned about it.”

Councilman Stephen A. Urban concurred, saying he was “a little shocked” to see weeds several feet high around trees.

Pedri said the county stopped hiring an outside landscaping contractor to maintain the River Common several years ago to reduce spending of the natural-gas recreation funding. The last landscaping contract was for $14,415 in 2014, records show.

County building and grounds workers now handle all park maintenance. But layoffs in past years have reduced their capabilities, Pedri said, noting county maintenance crews have stepped up park mowing in recent weeks.

Urban said the natural-gas funding already covers a percentage of salaries for building and grounds workers. These payments totaled 10 percent, or $76,329, in 2016 and $43,626, or 5 percent, this year, records show.

The county Flood Protection Authority maintains the Wyoming Valley Levee wall that runs through the River Common and the portal openings that allow people to access the river at street level.

The authority can’t fund recreational expenses because its sole revenue is a fee on levee-protected properties that can only be used for flood control, said authority Executive Director Chris Belleman.

Belleman said he has received complaints about park maintenance from people who did not realize it is under the county’s jurisdiction. He supports investing natural-gas funding on an outside professional landscaper due to the limited resources of building and ground workers.

The 2009 park project included the addition of hundreds of trees and shrubs, 12,000 perennials and 50,000 pieces of ground cover in the stretch from the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center to the courthouse on River Street.

“It’s a beautiful park, and a lot of dollars have been invested in it,” Belleman said. “There are a lot of plantings. If people prune and do it wrong, it could ruin them.”

Council members plan to award some or all of the $65,457 in natural-gas funds remaining this year. In addition to the county, 14 municipalities and a nonprofit submitted applications by the deadline. The applications are scheduled for release Friday as part of the Sept. 12 council work session agenda.

The county has received $228,623 to $307,629 annually from natural gas drilling since the state authorized such earmarks under Act 13 in 2012.

A man walks on the trail along the River Common in Wilkes-Barre on Thursday. Patches of overgrown weeds can be seen in the foreground. County council has fielded some recent complaints about the park’s appearance. man walks on the trail along the River Common in Wilkes-Barre on Thursday. Patches of overgrown weeds can be seen in the foreground. County council has fielded some recent complaints about the park’s appearance.

By Jennifer Learn-Andes

Reach Jennifer Learn-Andes at 570-991-6388 or on Twitter @TLJenLearnAndes.