March 23, 2023

Almost 23 years after the St. Joseph County Parks acquired it, a 115-acre parcel of land on Anderson Road in Granger could finally be developed into a county park. But it hinges on whether the parks board agrees with a proposal from other county officials to build a highway garage in one corner of the lot. 
The county wants to demolish and replace its current Granger highway garage, which officials say is no longer useful because it’s landlocked. 
On Tuesday, county attorney Mike Misch told the parks board that the Anderson Road site would improve road plowing and salting by placing the salt in Harris Township, which has seen a lot of complaints about winter road conditions. 
The park site is in the northeast corner of the county, 0.6 miles west of the Elkhart County line. The county had acquired the land in November 1999 to use as a future park, but, at that time − and ever since − county government officials didn’t provide the parks with funding to actually build a park. So the property has remained land banked and leased out for farming.  
On Tuesday, as local consultants presented cost estimates to the board, county Parks Director Steve Slauson said he was excited because this is the first time that there’s actually been an opportunity to pay for a park there.  
“We think it would be widely used,” he said, noting the nearby subdivisions. 
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But it will mean an extra annual cost with which the county will also have to reckon: Slauson mentioned a “wild estimate” of $350,000 per year to keep the new park maintained but said staff are now working on a more precise number. This compares with the county parks’ annual budget of about $2 million. 
In total, the highway garage, including a salt barn and fueling station, could cost about $10.45 million to build, local consultants from the architectural planning firm DLZ said. The park itself could cost an extra $4 million.
Misch said the money for the whole project would come from the county’s share of the federal pandemic relief aid (American Rescue Plan Act), from tax increment financing and from a bond.  
County officials are trying to work under a short timeline. They want to start the first phase of its garage plans this year so that they can tap into the bond funding. 
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The county would use seven acres at the southwest corner of the property to build a salt barn, above-ground fueling tanks and maintenance building. Its entrance would be near Beech Road, making it separate from the new park’s entrance. 
Park staff would be able to use the maintenance building outside of the winter road-plowing season. 
Because the county parks board owns the land, Slauson said, he’d prefer leasing that portion of the property to the county ― the longest possible lease would be 50 years ― rather than relinquishing ownership. 
The park itself could include a restored prairie and woods at the site, which is now mostly farm fields with some woods. There could be a one-mile paved trail and a one-mile natural-surface trail. That, plus two park shelters, an access drive and 50 parking spaces could cost $2.58 million in one option, DLZ estimated. If another drive, an extra 65 parking spaces, a large shelter and a playground are added, it would add $1.5 million to the cost.  
A DLZ intern had helped to develop ideas for the park. But, if the park plan does move forward, the actual designs would come later. Slauson and board members suggested it would be for passive uses, such as hiking and nature study, rather than athletic fields or pickleball courts. 
“This is just a conceptual plan,” Slauson said. “If this is something we’d do, we’d get public input.” 
He noted that, in 2024, the parks will be working on its next five-year master plan, to be adopted in 2025. 
It would add to the lineup of other St. Joseph County Parks, including St. Patrick’s, Bendix Woods, Ferrettie-Baugo Creek, Spicer Lake Nature Preserve, the LaSalle Trail and the Beverly D. Crone Restoration Area.  
Parks board member Tim Sexton called the proposal a “win-win opportunity,” given the park parcel’s location close to residents. 
Slauson noted that the Harris Township Park on Brummitt Road, with a playground and ball fields, is one mile to the south, and that Cobus Creek County Park‘s hiking trails in Elkhart County are four miles to the southeast. 
When parks board President Larry Catanzarite asked if any fellow board members were opposed to exploring the proposal, Donna Pfeil said she wanted another board meeting to discuss the issue without an audience. Other members suggested an executive session, citing it as a real estate deal, before the next board meeting, which will be at 9 a.m. Oct. 18 at Spicer Lake Nature Preserve in New Carlisle.  
To tap into bond funding, Misch said he’d like to know by then or “as soon as possible” whether the parks board is willing to go ahead with the proposal.  
The board voted Tuesday to continue considering it. 
Ultimately, the county’s council and commissioners would have to approve the deal, too. 
Email Tribune staff writer Joseph Dits at Follow him on Facebook at SBTOutdoorAdventures.


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