Eye on KELOLAND: Parks & pandemic

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — Sioux Falls city parks have been a popular outdoor refuge from the stresses and uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic. But even as more people flock to the parks, there have been fewer workers maintaining those parks this spring and summer. That’s because the City of Sioux Falls put a freeze on hiring seasonal workers due to the financial strain created by the pandemic.

The park system is a crown jewel of Sioux Falls that hasn’t lost its luster during the pandemic to visitors like Ben Christians and his family.

“It’s our first time here in a long time and we really like just getting to be outside feeling like you’re not in the city and having the kids run around and see some nature in a nice, safe way,” Christians said.

Enjoying the outdoors at a safe distance from others is a big draw for city parks during the pandemic.

“People are using it at a level that we’ve never seen before, because of the pandemic,” Sioux Falls Parks & Rec Director Don Kearney said.

Carsa Davis enjoys a stroll through Falls Park four times a week.

“Totally therapeutic to be outside and exercise. Exercise has been my go-to for whatever is in my life that bothers me, so it’s always been important to me to get moving,” Davis said.

But now it’s park employees who’ve had to step-up during the pandemic. Since the city didn’t hire extra workers to handle day-to-day maintenance at parks, the full-timers have had to pick up the pace.

“They’ve been on mowers, they’ve been string-trimming, they’ve been doing a lot of the things seasonal employees have been doing, and the beauty of it is, they’ve not complained once,” Kearney said.

Longer-term park projects are on hold during the pandemic.

“Whether it’s painting light poles or fixing concrete, or whatever it might be, they’re not major issues. But things that our guys do to try to really make sure that the park systems are top-notch,” Kearney said.

The pandemic has even tapped-out Sioux Falls’ water fountains. The parks department has shut off the water to its downtown fountains to save on daily maintenance costs.

“They’re just not on because every day we have to monitor the chlorine levels in these facilities and so it would take extra bodies and that’s one of the decisions they made early-on is to not open those,” Kearney said.

Many visitors say they haven’t noticed any difference in the parks with less maintenance taking place.

“Look at it, it’s gorgeous! They still seem to be taking care of it pretty well,” Davis said.

But others say they’re disappointed that the pandemic didn’t spare city parks.

“It’s nice that we can still come out and enjoy this. But, I haven’t seen a big change in the way things look out here. But hopefully, it doesn’t get worse or anything like that,” Christians said.

Sioux Falls Parks & Rec says it’s important to provide a safe setting for visitors as we head into the peak of summer. Park workers, who are doing more with fewer resources, are proving that community pride can withstand a pandemic.

“Our folks are really proud about what they do. They want to provide a good showing to the community, they want to provide good quality facilities, so they’re pulling out all the stops,” Kearney said.

Kearney says parks and rec saved about $2-million by closing city pools for the summer. The city also works with local sports associations to share in the upkeep of athletic fields.

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