By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — City leaders said they are eager to hear the public’s reaction to proposals for improving Winnekenni Park, including charging an admission fee to maintain the city’s largest and busiest recreational area.
The park, a 700-acre property boasting miles of multi-use trails, Plug Pond swimming area and Haverhill’s famous Medieval-style castle on the hill, sees hundreds of visitors on a typical summer day and is well-used throughout the year.
City Councilor Thomas Sullivan has developed what he calls a comprehensive plan for restoring and improving the park. He pitched the plan to the council and Mayor James Fiorentini last week.
Yesterday, Councilor William Macek said his Natural Resources and Public Properties Committee will host a meeting April 11 to hear reaction from residents and city department heads about the plan. He said Vincent Ouellette, head of the city’s Recreation Department, and Conservation Officer Robert Moore are among those invited to the meeting, which is at 7 p.m. in the council’s City Hall office.
“Hopefully after the meeting we’ll have a better idea of what people want and what they don’t like about my plan,” Sullivan said. “Then we can go after a grant to pay for some of it.”
Sullivan said the mayor and others he has discussed his plan with are less enthusiastic about charging an admission fee.
“No one wants to talk about the fee, but I still think a small fee is a good idea to pay for upkeep,” Sullivan said. “We need at least a small source of revenue.”
Sullivan’s plan identifies a number of ideas for how to pay for improvements to the park, pond and castle, including state grants and the user fee — $5 per season for residents and $10 for others. He proposes stationing someone at the park’s front entrance in summer months only to collect the fee between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
The Winnekenni Foundation, which focuses on the castle, lacks an endowment fund and badly needs benefactors, Sullivan said. To pay for basic upkeep of the park, the foundation relies on private donations, cultural council grants for specific community programs and the generosity of the city in providing manpower for activities such as collecting trash and trimming trees and brush.
Sullivan said the mayor has committed to doing some “minimal-cost” improvements to the park this spring. Those would include clearing and trimming trees and mangled brush near the park’s Route 110 entrance and along the basin pond, installing benches around the basin pond, painting the tennis court fence and possibly renovating restrooms in near the tennis court, Sullivan said.
“Beyond that, I told the mayor if there’s one place I’d spend money, it would be at Plug Pond,” Sullivan said. “That’s because I want people to start seeing the park and the pond as one place, because they are so close. The park can be an all-day experience. It’s not just a place to walk your dog.”
In an email to The Eagle-Tribune, Fiorentini said Sullivan’s plan “is completely in sync with my vision to improve parks and playgrounds throughout the city.”
“In the past, we have upgraded the playground to add swing sets, opened the bathrooms to public use and redone the tennis courts,” the mayor said of Winnekenni Park. “I look forward to working with the council and Councilor Sullivan to find resources to do more. I believe he is on the right track.”
Sullivan’s 11-page plan ranges from basic maintenance to more imaginative ideas such as bringing castle-themed paddle boats to the basin or nearby Plug Pond.
Other more creative ideas include installing racquetball, badminton, volleyball and bocce ball courts near Plug Pond, also known as Lake Saltonstall.
Sullivan’s plan would improve the playground area near the park entrance and possibly add a water spray park there. His plan suggests moving a popular winter sledding hill near the entrance away from the road that winds from the bottom of the property to the castle high above.
His plan starts with addressing a variety of basic maintenance issues at the entrance, including repointing the circa 1873 castle piers that frame the entrance to the park and trimming the heavy and mangled brush that blocks views of the the property from people driving by on Route 110.
Sullivan would like space in the park set aside for an “official” dog park in back of Plug Pond. He also would like to see a large, vacant city-owned home near the park’s entrance converted to a visitors center, rest-room facility and community meeting center.
Perhaps the most ambitious idea in Sullivan’s plan is to thin the forest around the castle so the building can once again be seen by people driving along Route 110, and so Kenoza Lake’s sprawling expanse can be seen from the winding road that leads to and from the castle.
Macek, who has been a leading advocate for taking better care of Haverhill’s vast forests, said he supports applying forest management principals and resources to woods in the park.
Macek said he is also open to charging an admission fee.