Park weighs options to pay for overdue updates, additions

Johnson County Park has some big-ticket items on its wish list and has for many years, but the problem has been finding a way to pay for them.

Now, park officials are meeting with private companies to explore a new way they might be able to appeal to the county, secure more funding and get some of those wish-list projects underway.

All of the work would be done at the county’s main park, a 622-acre park in southern Johnson County. A new office and nature center near the park’s main entrance, a remodel of the park’s horse arena, a new amphitheater, a “bike playground” and a camping store on site are all included on the list.

Some are needs, others are wants, said Megan Bowman, park superintendent. But any updates would make the park more attractive to visitors. A lot of the park’s budget goes toward constant maintenance on old, outdated facilities, she said. And although it’s hard to track how many people visit the parks because they’re free and there are no gates, officials suspect visitation is declining.

The park’s budget is about $1 million a year, half of which comes from county tax dollars, Bowman said. The county park maintains the rural county park and Independence Park in the Center Grove area.

Representatives from two central Indiana construction and development firms, Meyer Najem and GM Development, alongside the park staff and board, want to enter into a public-private partnership with the county.

In a public-private partnership — or BOT (Build, Operate, Transfer) system — the county would seek offers from several firms that are willing to help the park prioritize, design and come up with an exact budget for the projects. All planning would be done before the county would enter into any contracts for the work. The commissioners would select a firm based on its qualifications rather than its financial bid. The company would then seek financing for the projects, which the county would pay back later, likely in the form of longer, smaller payments.

“What you’re doing is picking a team to essentially work for free for you for awhile to figure out if these projects can even be done. You’re not entering into contracts until you actually know what things are going to look like, what the financing is going to be and so forth,” said Greg Martz of Indianapolis-based GM Development.

“We understand that the result of that scoping period may be none of this is going to work.”

Dan Lawson, a senior business development manager with Fishers-based Meyer Najem, is from the south side and has a vested interest in this area, he said.

“Over the last four years, parks and rec is something that we’ve become very passionate about as a company. As a team, we can bring construction, design and financing expertise for all of these projects,” Lawson told the commissioners.

Without making anything official, the county commissioners gave park officials permission to explore the partnerships further at a recent special meeting, and said they would be on board with any projects that improve the park without costing the county a lot of extra money.

“You’re not going to find any bigger supporters of the park than we are,” commissioner Ron West said. “We know we’ve got a lot of potential down there that we’re not able to capitalize on, mostly because of money.”

Johnson County Park offers an array of activities, from equine, to camping space and facilities, to disc golf, to several shelters that are available to rent for parties and events. Last year, the park decided to close its golf course because the upkeep was costing more than the revenue.

Some of the wish-list items, such as the camping store and the bike playground which the park has already received a small grant for, are more realistic than others, Bowman said.

“(The camping store has) always been part of the plan. The idea behind that one is to grow what already works for us, and that’s the Hoosier Horse Park and RV campground,” she said.

“We’re looking for creative things, like the bike playground. We don’t just want to be a cookie cutter of what everybody else already has.”

Other projects on the list, such as remodeling Dunn Arena, which is used for horse competitions, are less likely to happen any time soon, Bowman said.

“Dunn Arena is the heart of our horse park, but it’s fallen into disrepair, so right now it’s just being used as a restroom and shower facility. We understand that that one is going to have a high dollar sign attached to it,” she said.

A new amphitheater isn’t likely either because the park already has one, Bowman said.

“We have an amphitheater, but we can’t utilize it because it’s in the middle of a lot of other things that are used a lot. It’s just not what it needs to be,” she said.

But getting even one project started would be a huge accomplishment, she said.

“The whole purpose is that it be something that can generate revenue. That has to play a factor. So we’re looking at ones that have the potential to generate funds. But also, 10 years from now, how will we continue to pay for this?” Bowman said.

“We want to enhance our existing services. We want to add amenities that encourage and increase visitation.”

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Here is a look at some of the projects the Johnson County Park is hoping to find funding for:

New, more visible park office and nature center with event space;

New amphitheater;

Remodel Dunn Arena;

Bike playground;

Camping store on site