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A new park in central Missoula is already seeing fairly heavy use, even though it’s only partially ready and is covered in snow.

The Montana Rail Link Park, located in a triangle-shaped parcel bordered by North and South avenues and Johnson Street near Southgate Mall, is slated to have a grand opening this spring. However, the dog park is already open and has been quite popular, according to Missoula Parks and Recreation director Donna Gaukler.

“Every time I go by I see at least a couple people out there,” she said. “That was a way more successful opening than I even thought it would be. Folks couldn’t wait for it to open.”

Gaukler gave a presentation on her department’s accomplishments to the Parks and Recreation Board on Tuesday, where she also worked with the board to finalize language for the department’s strategic plan.

She cited a long list of major projects completed by her staff over the course of 2018, from the completion of the Fort Missoula Regional Park to finalizing plans for two new bike skills features parks at Syringa Park and Bellevue Park, which should open this spring. She also touted the new $15 million general obligation bond passed by 62 percent of voters last November that will go for the preservation and acquisition of open space, as well as a perpetual city-wide conservation and stewardship levy. 

The Aquatics division was able to raise swim lesson revenue by 22 percent from $92,000 in 2017 to $117,000 last year, mainly by targeting private, semi-private and group lessons, along with a 25-cent increase in fees, she added.

But it was the Montana Rail Link Park that made Gaukler’s eyes light up as she spoke to the board.

“What an incredible partnership,” she said, referring to the cooperation between her staff, Montana Rail Link (which donated the property), Garden City Harvest, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency and other organizations. “It’s so significant to gain a 4 1/2-acre park in one of our most under-served neighborhoods that’s low- and moderate income, that’s on the Bitterroot Trail and able to finish the Bitterroot Trail Link from Missoula to Hamilton.”

Gaukler said the park also provides a sorely needed east-to-west link along Central Avenue that fits in with the city’s Bicycle Facilities Long Range Transportation Master Plan. The playground features railroad-themed equipment, which Gaukler said will be popular with families in the high-density surrounding neighborhoods. She recalled seeing toys in the yards nearby, and knowing a railroad-themed new park was just across the train tracks from those kids’ houses made her proud that her department is accomplishing one of its goals: increasing access to recreation opportunities for people of all financial backgrounds and abilities.

“When I saw that it just gave me the shivers, in a good way,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Gaukler also noted that people living in the surrounding neighborhoods were “immensely and directly involved with the planning process” for the park.

The nonprofit organization Garden City Harvest will also have roughly 20 community garden plots in the MRL Park open in the spring.

Genevieve Jessop Marsh, GCH’s community outreach director, said her office is now accepting applications for the plots.

“They’ll be a little smaller at this garden, so a little bit more manageable for a smaller family,” she said. “It’s going to be a really cool garden. It’s been a great partnership with Parks and Rec, who’s been really supportive, and the MRA has been really instrumental as well. So for $40, a family can grow food and often people are able to take some home at the end of the year and freeze it. You would probably spend $40 a month just on water if you were to garden at your own home. So it’s a pretty great deal.”

Jessop Marsh said that neighborhood was really pining for a community garden space, and it will be the organization’s 10th such communal growing area in town. Participants get soil, water and access to tools and guidance for the one-time fee.

“This was very community-driven,” she said. “The neighborhood drove the process.”

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