The pandemic increased activity at parks and trails. Now towns are using ARPA funds for outdoor recreation.

·8 min read

Jul. 3—Originating at the Old Town Mill, running under Crystal Avenue and through Fulton Park, then entering Winthrop Cove, Briggs Brook is not something the public can see or access, due to the overgrowth of vegetation.

But that's something the city of New London is looking to change, using about $1.67 million of its $26.3 million in COVID-19 pandemic relief aid in the form of American Rescue Plan Act funding from the federal government.

Related story: Here's where southeastern Connecticut cities and towns are in allocating ARPA funds

The plan, by the engineering firm Barton & Loguidice, which has offices throughout the Northeast, is to clear the banks of vegetation and, beyond the banks, to add walking paths, picnic tables, an overlook deck, lighting, a pavilion and trees. The city also plans to install a wooden pedestrian bridge over the brook at Fulton Park, to connect the two sections of the park. The next phase is brush clearing.

Director of Public Works Brian Sear said as part of the $1.67 million, the city went out to bid and is spending about $75,000 to replace the roof at the Old Town Mill, 8 Mill St. The city also spent about $230,000 replacing the basketball courts at Fulton Park off of Crystal Avenue, which has been completed.

"Without ARPA, I would've picked away a little bit, but there's no way we would've launched an effort such as this," Sear said, adding, "It's not a scale we would've normally been able to afford."

Public health is one of the approved ways municipalities can spend the funds, and the Fulton Park improvements are just one outdoor recreation project out of many that public works and parks and recreation departments across Connecticut are working on using ARPA funds. Parks, trails and beaches saw increased use during the pandemic. While it's difficult to say exactly what would have happened without ARPA dollars, directors say some projects would have taken much longer to complete or happened at a smaller scale.

Also included in New London's ARPA spending is $150,000 for a "Rec Mobile."

"With our community experiencing post-COVID isolation and staying close to home, New London Recreation is looking to integrate into the community neighborhoods by taking the Recreation Department to the streets!" the recreation department's request for funding stated. The idea is for the Rec Mobile to go on routine neighborhood or park visits, providing fitness, board games, sports and crafts.

Recreation Director Tommie Major said the department is trying to have the van built but there's a delay with certain companies, and he hopes to get it in late August or September.

Outside of his department, the city's Office of Development and Planning got $150,000 for a Public Green Space Improvement Program, funds that could be used for fencing, playscapes, signage, exercise equipment, public restrooms and benches.

Montville: Camp Oakdale improvements and an inclusive playground

Outdoor recreation was clearly a priority for Montville: About 40% of the first $1.5 million the Town Council approved, out of its total allocation of $5.5 million over two years, was set aside for the Parks and Recreation Commission.

That includes a variety of projects at Camp Oakdale, 140 Meeting House Lane: $360,000 to replace the tennis courts, $55,000 to repair the pavilion, $24,000 for bleachers for the soccer field and $5,000 for grill replacement.

Adjacent to Camp Oakdale is the Mostowy property, which the town purchased in 2018, and the town has set aside $12,000 for a site plan and $5,000 for a trail. Commission Chair Kate Southard said the commission has to start with an archeological study and engineer, and then wants to expand on the natural trails on the property.

The commission is getting $150,000 in ARPA funds for an inclusive playground, which Southard said will probably be at the community center. She explained that the playground would accommodate kids with physical disabilities and also be good for kids with autism.

The ARPA budget also includes $20,000 for parking and a picnic area at Scholfield Park, which the fire companies use for training.

Southard doesn't think the inclusive playground or the bleachers for the soccer field would've happened if not for ARPA funding. As for the status of the projects, she said the grills have arrived and need to be installed, she's waiting on site plans for the accessible playground, and she's getting new estimates on the tennis courts.

"I think that we realized that we just needed more outdoor things for our communities, more places where people could have activities that didn't require them to have to worry about social distancing," Southard said about an impact of the pandemic.

Groton: Sutton Park, Shennecossett Golf Course and master plans

When the Town Council and Representative Town Meeting allocated $3.05 million of Groton's ARPA funds as part of the budget process from March to May, nearly two-thirds was set aside for projects related to parks and outdoor recreation.

"During the pandemic, people utilized parks much more heavily, just because it was a safe space for people to be able to get out and help with their mental and physical wellness," said Mark Berry, director of parks and recreation.

The largest project is $980,000 for Sutton Park at 185 Fort Hill Road. Berry said the proposal is to replace a playground, rehabilitate one of the shelters, remodel the skate park and redo the parking lot. His department is working on putting together a request for proposals for design services, and he hopes to go out to bid by August. There would then be a process to get input from people who use the skate park and playground.

There's also $210,000 for a Community Connectivity Master Plan, to create a bike and pedestrian plan for Groton for the first time since 2004.

"The goal of updating the community connectivity plan is to identify those areas that exist where it's a challenge for people to get from one place to another safely, and kind of prioritize whatever projects are identified," Berry said. He hopes to develop the request for proposals this fall, get data collection next spring through fall from people biking and walking, and get a final report in 2024.

There's also $80,000 for a Parks and Open Space Master Plan, which Berry said was last done in 2009.

The town's total ARPA allocation is about $8.6 million, and $740,000 has been set aside for Shennecossett Golf Course, 93 Plant St. — for an operational analysis, construction of the restroom building and renovation of the clubhouse. Berry said he saw "a tremendous increase" in people playing at the golf course during the pandemic.

East Lyme: Darrow Pond, beach bathroom and playgrounds

The top ARPA priorities for East Lyme Parks & Recreation, Director Dave Putnam said, are the Darrow Pond Recreation Area master plan for $25,000 and restroom enhancements in parks for $200,000, particularly at Hole-in-the-Wall Beach at the end of Baptist Lane in Niantic. Putnam said the town is looking to make the bathroom accessible year-round but it's not yet winterized.

Two hundred of the 300 acres at Darrow Pond, on Mostowy Road off Route 161, are in a conservation easement but the rest can be enhanced, and the town just went out to bid for a master plan that will guide its use, Putnam said. Improvements would be for passive recreation that fits in with the surrounding environment, not something like ballfields.

"We saw a big push toward hiking and outdoor adventure type of things, so that's why I think Darrow Pond would be a really good place to put the monies too," Putnam said, adding that he saw a "huge increase" in use of the Niantic Bay Boardwalk and beaches during the pandemic — hence the bathroom improvements at Hole-in-the-Wall.

Putnam is hoping to select a contractor for the master plan in mid-July and start the process of the restroom improvements in the fall.

His department is also getting $500,000 for playground improvements at McCook Point Park and Peretz Park and $75,000 to replace the water fountains in parks.

Putnam said the various projects are in his long-term capital improvements list, but without ARPA funds, "they might've been done but it might've taken years, so this has just, I think, sped up that process."

Norwich: much ado about Mohegan Park

Norwich received $28.8 million in ARPA funds, and the first round of funding — approved in September — includes a few projects at Mohegan Park.

That includes $120,000 for improvements at Mohegan Park Playground, $50,000 to add adult exercise stations and $30,000 to expand the disc golf course to 18 holes with short and long baskets. The city already has set up seven exercise equipment stations, such as an ab toner, leg press and rower.

There's also $350,000 for improvements to the Armstrong tennis courts. Other ARPA allocations for outdoor recreation include $130,000 for improvements at Jenkins Park off High and Mechanic streets, $100,000 for the Greeneville Playground at 266 Central Ave. and $150,000 for the splash pad; these are all part of the Master Park Plan.

The public works department has a $1.1 million budget for design and installation work at Uncas Leap Heritage Park off of Yantic Street, including completion of the granite mill ruin, interpretive signage and a timeline exhibit, fencing, lighting, a restroom facility and trails. The project description said this "will be a draw for tourists which should help the restaurants and hotels in the City."

SLR International Corp. was selected as the design firm at the end of 2021 and, by the end of March, had started the survey portion of the work, according to a report from the first quarter.