Small Nebraska city comes together in a big “green” way By Suz Trusty

Steve Ferguson (right), Seward’s parks, recreation and cemetery director, with Pat Sanley, assistant recreation director, and Robert Core, assistant parks director. Photos courtesy of city of Seward, Nebraska.

Small town USA is alive and more than well; in Seward, Nebraska, it’s flourishing. With a population just six shy of 7,000, and a town square right out of a Norman Rockwell picture, this city is forward-thinking. The community is united in a cooperative approach that maximizes assets to minimize costs and provide amenities and recreational opportunities that would turn many big city dwellers green with envy.

Seward has a strong base of local businesses. It’s home to Concordia University, a private school with 1,100 full- and part-time students. It’s become home to many commuters who consider its affordability and quality of life well worth the 30-minute drive to Lincoln, the state capitol. And it’s just 80 minutes from Omaha, the state’s largest city.

“We’re small, but we think big,” says Steve Ferguson, the park, recreation and cemetery director of the city of Seward.

“Our residents have always had high expectations for their park facilities and recreation programs and the commitment to support them. During my 34 years here, we’ve made great improvements on both fronts and we’re continuing to do so.”

Ferguson served as parks superintendent for about seven years. Then the recreation department was added to his responsibilities. Total parkland is now approximately 130 acres, including the athletic fields and facilities. The department also maintains the lawns and landscape of the city buildings, the largest round outdoor swimming pool in the state, a hiking-biking trail, campground and three cemeteries: one 40 acres, one 20 acres and one 1 acre. Another maintenance responsibility is the city’s historic band shell and the property surrounding it. It’s the site of Sunday evening concerts from May through August and draws an amazing crowd of 45,000 for Seward’s Fourth of July celebration.

Big plans, big results

Thinking big led to the 30-acre land purchase to create Plum Creek Park. That facility became the site of Seward’s Memorial Field for baseball and softball, two additional softball/baseball fields, along with tennis courts, playground equipment, picnic tables, shelters and restrooms.

That was followed by the purchase of another 30 acres, just across the street, for development of the Plum Creek Sports Complex which opened in 2001. It features a wagon wheel quad of softball/baseball fields, two hard-surface batting cages, seven youth soccer fields, a full-size concrete basketball court, lighted sand volleyball courts, two playgrounds and a combined restroom, concession and maintenance building.

In 2003, the city converted a flood plains area to Plum Creek Trail. It constructed a 10-foot-wide concrete hiking/biking trail that winds 2.7 miles along the east side of the city from near the entrance of the sports complex to near the city’s water treatment facility. The trail opened in the summer of 2004.

An extensive, landscaped garden and arboretum area was added later that year. It enhances the entrance to Plum Creek. Like previous development, the garden was a joint venture, calling on the expertise of multiple city departments and funding through grants and donations provided by a group of city and state organizations.

“We’re following the same process to extend the trail another 5 miles. When completed, it will make a loop around the city,” says Ferguson.

Local organizations and corporate and private sponsors raised approximately $125,000 to construct an indoor facility adjacent to the sports complex parking lot. It is named for the lead corporate sponsor, Cattle National Bank & Trust Company. The Cattle Athletic Training Center opened in January of 2010. It’s an insulated, heated, 5,200-square-foot metal building with a synthetic turf surface and 17-foot-high ceiling. It features three retractable net batting cages and portable pitching mounds with room for limited infield practices.

“Our 22 select baseball and softball teams use it from December through April,” says Ferguson. “Each team pays $100 per season which guarantees them 1.5 hours of use every week. The opportunity for off-season practice raises their ability level and they get better each year.”

An older, partially fenced tennis court at Moffit Park was underused. The city teamed with a group of local skateboard enthusiasts to convert it to a Skate Park. The department extended the fencing to surround it. The skateboarders formed the Seward Skate Park Association to raise funds for it and donated the skate equipment to complete it.

Ferguson says, “We added an 18-hole disc golf course a couple years ago. A representative of the Disc Golf Association designed it with a unique layout. Half of the holes are within tree groves; half in the more traditional open area. It qualifies as both an amateur and pro course. We hold five or six tournaments a year and they always report lots of lost discs.”

Independence Landing, a handicap-accessible pier added to the fishing pond by the swimming pool, opened this spring.

“Funding for it was all community-based,” says Ferguson. “Our next project will be a splash pad near the disc golf course.”

Maximizing assets

The Seward City Council’s support is key to the program’s success. “They understand the role parks and rec plays in attracting people to Seward and keeping them here,” says Ferguson. “So they’re willing to invest in the equipment we need to operate effectively. A Toro 16.5-foot mower is in the $75,000 range and we have two of them.”

The department also has two John Deere 72-inch mowers, two John Deere 60-inch mowers, a ride-on spray unit and a Toro Sand Pro, along with an arsenal of handmade drags, small hand-held power equipment and hand tools.

Equipment and supplies are strategically located close to their use. The largest maintenance facility is in the multi-use building in the center of the sports complex quad. The second is at the largest cemetery. The third is at the municipal building, where the parks and recreation and street department offices are based.

Loyal and hard-working

Pat Sanley, assistant recreation director, has held that full-time position for 20 years. There are two full-time staff members for the cemeteries. Along with general maintenance, the three full-time parks employees have specific assignments. Robert Core, the assistant parks director, serves as the irrigation specialist. Another full-timer handles the majority of the spraying. The third focuses much of his time on the garden area, keeping it picture-perfect for the four or five weddings held there each year. Ferguson, the only other full-time parks and rec employee, also oversees the three part-time janitors that take care of the interior of the city’s public buildings.

Ferguson says he has a “great” crew. Yet the department’s biggest challenge is finding seasonal people that are qualified for (and want to do) the work.

Pat Sanley handles the hiring and training of the 35 to 40 part-time employees needed for administrative, maintenance and lifeguard positions at the pool. That process starts in late January. Everything has to be in place for the Memorial Day opening. Each shift requires a staff of 11, including the lifeguards.

Ferguson handles all other department hiring and oversees that training. “The seasonal park maintenance people must be 18 or older because they need to operate power equipment,” he says. “We had openings for two of our four slots this year and only got two applications.”

Typically, two or three of that seasonal crew work at the Plum Creek Sports Complex and Park, handling the mowing, trash removal and field maintenance. The others work at the other parks.

The big increase in select baseball and softball programs keeps those fields busy during the evenings and on weekends through mid-July. Ferguson says, “The big weekend tournaments use all the fields with games starting at 8 in the morning and, since the Sports Complex fields aren’t lighted, until it gets dark at about 8 at night. That means our crew needs to get in early to have the cleanup, dragging and marking completed so all the fields can start play on time.”

Share and share alike

Facilities use is also a cooperative venture, shared with the Seward school system and Concordia University. It’s a cost-saving arrangement that works well for all involved.

The Concordia University baseball and softball teams and the high school JV and varsity baseball and softball teams practice and play on the city fields and use the indoor practice facility.

“Concordia put money into Memorial Field and the high school booster club provided the funding for the score board,” says Ferguson.

Concordia has synthetic turf at Bulldog Stadium, its campus football. Seward high school uses that field for its football and soccer programs. The city uses the school district gyms for its indoor sport recreational programs.

Typical of that community cooperation is Seward’s Adopt-a-Park Sponsorship program.

“Groups such as the Seward Junior Women Optimists, Seward Lions Club and local churches each adopt one of our little neighborhoods parks,” explains Ferguson. “It’s a wonderful asset for us, especially in the spring crazy time.”

The groups handle all the recruiting, organizing, fundraising and scheduling. Most allocate a half-day of work in both spring and fall. They set the work dates and notify Ferguson in advance. In the spring, mulch is dropped at the site so it’s ready for them on that day. The volunteers tackle the clean-up, rake out all the plant beds, spread the mulch and paint or stain any playground equipment and shelters as needed.

“They usually wrap-up their work session with lunch, which they organize and provide,” says Ferguson. “They also install a sponsorship sign and a small floral display around it and maintain those throughout the season.”

The park crews handle the mowing and trimming, weed control, trash removal, tree and shrub care, playground maintenance and repair, and winter snow and ice removal.

“We’ve found the sponsored parks need less maintenance overall. Because it’s their park and they’ve set the standard for what they want it to look like, they keep an eye on things whenever they’re in it and urge other users to help keep it looking great,” says Ferguson. “Working together; that’s just how we do things in Seward.”