By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — A proposal to charge an admission fee at Winnekenni Park is off the table, and instead the city is likely to ask visitors for donations.
City Councilor Thomas Sullivan said a council committee reviewing his plan to improve the 700-acre park prefers to ask visitors for donations rather than charging a fee.
“We might decide to install a donation box at the front,” Sullivan said, recounting a variety of ideas for improving the park that came up at a meeting last week. “The people at the meeting aren’t opposed to an admission fee because they can see the value of keeping the park in pristine condition. But we agreed it might be better to keep it voluntary.”
Sullivan has developed a broad plan for restoring and improving the park, which includes miles of multi-use trails, a playground and tennis courts, Plug Pond swimming area and Haverhill’s famous castle on the hill.
In his proposal, Sullivan identified a number of ideas for how to pay for improvements to the park, pond and castle. His ideas included state grants and the admission fee — $5 per season for residents and $10 for others. He suggested stationing someone at the park’s front entrance in the summer months only to collect the fee between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
But after some residents and city officials opposed the admission fee proposal, Sullivan said the council’s Public Property and Natural Resources Committee is considering the donation system. The committee also discussed holding an annual fund-raising event at the park and possibly setting up a system where donations could be collected online, he said.
The city is trying to find money to improve and maintain the park, which is Haverhill’s largest recreational area.
Mayor James Fiorentini said he doesn’t support admission fees at the park either, but that he does support forming a “Friends of Winnekenni Park” group to solicit private donations and hold fundraising events.
“Even though some state and federal parks charge for parking, I’m not for it because a lot of high school students and parents with small children use Winnekenni,” the mayor said.
Sullivan’s proposal to improve the park ranges from basic maintenance to more imaginative ideas such as bringing castle-themed paddle boats to the basin or nearby Plug Pond.
Fiorentini said he will include money in a capital spending proposal he is developing for improvements at Winnekenni. He said he might provide money to renovate bathrooms near the tennis courts and at Plug Pond, install benches around the basin pond and paint the tennis court fence.
“I’m not committing specifically to anything at this time,” he said. “But there will be something (in the improvements budget) for Winnekenni.”
Sullivan said the council committee will hold another meeting after the mayor reveals his spending plan. The committee will eventually make recommendations to the full council for improvements at the park, Sullivan said.
Councilor William Macek, chairman of the Public Property and Natural Resources Committee, said officials are also concerned that charging an admission fee to the park could disqualify the city from state grants for improvements there.
“No one wants to turn Winnekenni into some kind of theme park,” Macek said. “Most of the discussion (at last week’s meeting) was about how to do better maintenance and to fix problems caused by lack of maintenance.”
Macek said a lot of the meeting’s discussion focused on maintaining the park’s trails, which have eroded in many places.
“There are places where we need to get machinery in there to smooth and grade them,” he said, noting the trails are heavily used not only by the general public, but by high school athletes. “There are other places where we need to trim back the overgrowth.”
Macek said there is strong support for more parking and lighting in the park, and for renovating the public rest-rooms near the tennis courts.
“We talked about hiring a professional management company to book weddings and other events at the castle,” Macek said, “not only to run those events, but also to market the castle better to get more private events there. That’s another way to generate money that can be used to restore and maintain the park.”
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.
Macek said his committee will meet one more time before going back to the full council with specific recommendations.
Other more creative ideas in Sullivan’s plan 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.
The plan starts with addressing a variety of basic maintenance issues at the entrance, including repointing the 1873 castle’s piers that frame the entrance to the park and trimming the heavy and mangled brush that blocks views of the property from people driving by on Route 110.
The plan would thin the forest around the castle so the structure can once again be seen by people driving along nearby Route 110, and so Kenoza Lake’s sprawling expanse can be seen from the winding road that leads to and from the castle.
Fiorentini said he would also like to “open up vistas” so people can see the castle while driving on Route 110 at night. That could be done, the mayor said, by using the city’s forest management program at the park. The crux of that program is charging fees to companies that would trim and clear city forests in exchange for keeping the lumber.
“I’d like to speed up the use of forest management at the park and use any money it generates to improve the trails,” the mayor said.