After hearing public objections over the proposed sale of Elbel Park, the City of South Bend has responded with a plan to inventory and to manage better its resources, natural and manmade alike. At a meeting on March 21, 2016, South Bend Parks and Recreation Director Aaron Perri outlined recommendations to operate the site's golf course in 2016; engage with consultants to do a financial and management audit of all three city golf courses; conduct a full Floristic Quality Assessment (FQA); and create a Natural Resource Management Plan for the city's major parks. Dark skies and the night environment were among the assets recognized in the public dialogue.
While Richard Elbel Park is primarily known as a city-owned golf course, it consists of over 300 acres of prime land, a small lake, wetlands, and a dark sky at night (approximately 19.16 magnitudes per square arc-second). When the mayor's office suggested the park would be leased or sold, park supporters inspired in part by the grass roots group Elbel for Everyone quickly sought more transparency. The ensuing social media campaign was accompanied by actual bodies in the seats as people attended public meetings to decry the hurried process. The City Council responded by forming a Special Advisory Committee for Elbel, and within months a favorable turnaround in the city's approach was evident.
In a blog post At Risk at Elbel and at a previous public hearing I advocated for specific practices to recognize the value of and to preserve the night sky. "Often we don't know what we've got until it's gone. Equally often, when we arrive at the point (like now) when deciding whether we'll preserve what we've got, we don't fully know what is at risk."
Elbel for Everyone was supportive in acknowledging and promoting the nighttime assets. In a list of complementary activities that the public can enjoy at the park, at the March 21 meeting they cited Night Sky Education in writing, and spokesperson Jen Betz directly addressed the value of the night sky in her public comments.
I was very encouraged by Aaron Perri's presentation and proposal for a management plan, to be fleshed out in the next 12-16 months. Acknowledging that there is much unknown about the park, Perri welcomed getting more informed about the overall park health and risk assessment. "How are we taking care of our night sky?" he asked.
While Perri warned of mission creep for the Special Advisory Committee, in public comments at the March 21 meeting I expressed "my hope that the vision for natural resources for all the parks will expand to the rest of city operations, so they have the same forward-thinking vision that's been expressed here tonight in some of the issues like sustainability and knowing what we've got and what's at risk."
Thank you, City of South Bend, for stepping back and taking a moment to listen to what people deem valuable, for looking around at what you've got, and, of course, for looking up.