The town couldn’t open Kiwanis Park to the public in the way it had planned this summer, officials say, not only because of the COVID-19 pandemic but also because a local organization that took over the Old Norwalk Road property for its own campers left it in sub-par condition.
In years past, residents including Kiwanis pass-holders and Recreation Department campers, among others, have split use of the beach at the park’s swimming hole with the New Canaan YMCA. This year, citing space restrictions due to COVID-19, town officials approved a new lease that gave the Y exclusive weekday use of Kiwanis for its camp, limiting public access to 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday to Friday, and open use on weekends.
As a result, “the summer was a non-summer,” according to Recreation Director Steve Benko, “because we ran into the COVID situation and we ended up leasing the whole complex to the Y.”
“That really affected the attendance,” Benko told members of the Town Council Land Use, Recreation and Conservation Committee during their Oct. 7 meeting, held via videoconference. On the 15 Saturdays and Sundays that Kiwanis was open to the public, a total of about 530 people went there, according to Benko. It wasn’t worth the money to hire someone to man the gate on weeknights, he said, so there are no hard attendance numbers for the balance of the week, though about 15 to 20 people were going Kiwanis daily.
Asked whether it’d be worth opening Kiwanis to the public at all next summer, should New Canaan find itself, Benko said, “We can, but the problem is that the Y had the whole park, and they used the public facilities. The public pavilion. And they didn’t get all of their stuff picked up until 5, 5:15 [p.m.]. And so I couldn’t bring the public in. There were boxes of equipment. There was all kinds of stuff laying around. They had to throw it away. Plus we had to clean it up. I can’t tell you the number of nights I spent down there with a leaf-blower, blowing the garbage up, picking the papers up. Everything else. It wasn’t left pristine for the public to use at 5:30.”
The comments could help frame discussions during the upcoming budget season about future funding for Kiwanis Park.
After much discussion within the Parks & Recreation Commission, Board of Selectmen and municipal funding bodies, the town reduced the operating budget for Kiwanis Park by 27% for this fiscal year, to $65,000. Funding for the playground fencing survived the capital budget process, at $25,000, and another $8,000 was approved for new shade umbrellas.
As the pandemic worsened this summer and state officials issued guidance for the restricted use of public facilities, the Town Council narrowly approved a new lease agreement with the Y (First Selectman Kevin Moynihan broke a 6-6 tie within the legislative body). At the June 17 public hearing, residents challenged plans to grant the Y exclusive access to the park, citing the property’s deed as well as the lease amount.
Though town officials cited coronavirus disease, efforts to offload Kiwanis through a public-private partnership with the Y had already been underway—they have been in the works for more than one year, predating the onset of COVID-19 here.
One year ago, Moynihan took steps to ready the park for a change in use, ridding a town-owned home there of its tenants as the Board of Selectmen deleted Kiwanis from a food concession lease. As the budget season got underway, Moynihan declared Kiwanis “an expendable area” of town spending. He tried to eliminate nearly all funding for Kiwanis, and after fellow members of the Board of Selectmen restored it so that recreation officials have a chance to reinvigorate the park under a reduced-hours schedule, Moynihan suggested the playground at Kiwanis be moved to Waveny Pool.
It wasn’t, though the future of Kiwanis Park remains in question. Parks & Rec hasn’t yet made a formal recommendation on it, though some members of the Commission, such as Jack Hawkins, have argued during the appointed group’s meetings on behalf of Moynihan’s plan. Other members of the Commission, including Chair Rona Siegel, have noted that the onset of COVID-19 prevented Recreation officials from having a chance to implement a reinvigoration plan this past summer.
During last week’s meeting, members of the Town Council committee mistakenly said that Kiwanis was to open to the public at 5 p.m. weekdays per the group’s own resolution (it’s 5:30 p.m.).
Committee member Maria Naughton said the town should keep the YMCA’s clean-up needs in mind if the lease agreement is renewed or next summer. Benko said the town should go back to the agreement it had before with the Y, with shared access.
“If we get through this COVID thing, I would go back to—give them a little more beachfront, if they want—but I would go back to what we normally have done,” Benko said. “We didn’t bring our camp kids to the park this summer because of COVID, so we couldn’t bus them down there. So they [New Canaan YMCA] had the opportunity to take the whole complex over. If we get through this COVID situation and next summer is a little different, then you know, the modus operandi will change a little bit. And hopefully we can go back and do some of the improvements we hope to do in the park, some of the activities we want.”
One idea that Recreation officials had put forward during last budget season was attracting more young teens by installing a type of “flotation playground” with slides in the swimming hole.