Douglas County commissioners praised a new landscaping plan for the Douglas County Fairgrounds at their Wednesday meeting, and were told that two other improvements at the site were nearing completion.
Sarah Plinsky, assistant county administrator, said the last two pieces of the $8 million fairgrounds renovation project — the open-air arena and the outdoor event arena — were nearly finished. All that remained to be done on the open air arena is the installation of a few interior accessories, Plinsky said, while the outdoor event arena, as the structure that replaced the demolition derby arena is called, would be finished in early January 2017.
But even more changes are slated to take place at the site when the county and its partners implement the $209,000 to $308,000 landscape master plan that commissioners reviewed at the meeting. As Lawrence landscape architect Paul Neukirch, of Bartlett & West, explained when discussing proposed signs for the fairgrounds’ southwest and northwest corners, the site will double as a park.
The expanded use of the site pleased commissioners.
“I love the idea this becomes a park,” Commissioner Nancy Thellman said. “I love the idea people, especially on the east side of town, will have a place to gather.”
The Bartlett & West plan, developed with input from county staffers and fairgrounds users, would be completed in three phases. Neukirch said the phases would overlap, and the goal would be to complete the project in 10 years.
In the first phase, trees would be planted and other key landscape elements would be placed. Trails, a shelter, gateway signage and other structural elements would be installed in the later phases.
The plan reflects requests voiced to designers that the fairgrounds' landscape serve sustainable, historical, recreational and educational purposes, a report delivered to commissioners states.
Hands-on educational opportunities would be available in a “teachable garden,” while signage on 28 tree species and 12 varieties of flowering ornamental shrubs would provide “passive” educational opportunities. Many of those signs would be along a network of 10-foot-wide trails.
The site’s history would be celebrated with an Oregon Trail-themed playground near where the trail crossed the fairgrounds at the current carnival site, Neukirch said. It would include a park shelter near the fairgrounds’ concessions facility and two play structures.
Other elements of the fully realized master plan include a linear arboretum along Harper Street on the fairgrounds’ west side, four pocket parks, a central pedestrian plaza and gateway signage.
The master plan also proposes that open green spaces, such as the carnival site, double as “flexible” sports venues when not being used for their designed uses. It is suggested venues be equipped with $3,650 to $5,950 in portable soccer goals, volleyball nets and disc golf baskets. All of this equipment would be stored at the fairgrounds.
Plinsky said the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department was involved in the discussion of the flexible sports venues and is already interested in renting the new facilities for events.
Douglas County master gardeners and other community partners will be invited to participate in the maintenance of some of the landscape elements, Plinsky said.
The county had the money to complete the first phase of the plan, Plinsky said. For the latter phases, Plinsky said, the fact that the current fairgrounds renovation project was coming in under budget could free up some money for landscaping. She added that some revenue from rental of fairgrounds buildings could also be earmarked for landscape improvements.
Plinsky said she also expected that the Douglas County Community Foundation, the Douglas County Heritage Council and other community partners would contribute funding, and that additional money could be raised from naming rights for some features.
The modular development would allow the fairgrounds staff to adjust to added maintenance demands, Plinsky said. It would also give the county the flexibility to adjust the master plan to reflect uses of a site that would be fundamentally changed, she said. The central pedestrian plaza was intentionally left vague so that it could be designed to complement uses that develop in the coming years, she said.
Commissioner Jim Flory said the master plan’s scope was much more than the few trees he thought it would entail.
“This exceeds my expectations,” he said. “I don’t know anybody in Kansas that will have a fairgrounds to match it. I don’t know of anything in the Midwest.”