Tiny central Illinois town builds a park that’s beautiful, eco-friendly and low-fuss

Jerry Potts discusses the stormwatermanagement features of the park.

A local farmer’s generosity almost half a century ago paved the way for the central Illinois village of Mt. Zion to celebrate the opening of a very green, $3 million park this summer. We’re talking “green,” as in the selection of native and regionally adapted plants for park wetlands and a design that provides excellent stormwater management that captures and bio-remediates runoff pollutants at the park.

Fletcher Park was named for Raymond “Skinny” Fletcher, who, upon his death in 1969, left about 90 acres to Mt. Zion Township. Today, 23 of those acres are the site of Fletcher Park, but Fletcher’s gift of land for public use would never have become a park without private donations and hard work by employees at the Mt. Zion Public Works Department.

A boardwalk borders the pond.

Stormwater management

Completed earlier this year, the park is a model project for stormwater management and lush, low-maintenance turfgrass. Mt. Zion, like communities across North America, can’t afford to spend much money on its parks. With slightly more than 5,000 residents, the bedroom community to Decatur in central Illinois was growing steadily until 2008, when the recession dug in.

The 23-acre park would have never come into being had it not been for private donations of $1 million and a $400,000 Open Space Acquisition and Development grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Another donation funded six tennis courts and the park’s landscaping, which included a line of trees as a windbreak. A historic one-room school building is now a fixture at the park, as well. The old school will become an interactive learning center on native wildlife and plants.

Credit Village Administrator Jerry Potts, with the public works department since 1978, for promoting the development of the park. His enthusiasm helped win approval from the Mt. Zion Village board. The Ives/Ryan Group, Inc., Lombard, Ill., was selected to design the park. Construction began in 2008 after approval of the park master plan, but it wasn’t until July 4 this year that the community celebrated its opening.

“We’re a small town. We never could have afforded to contract all the construction, which would have added significantly to the cost,” Potts said. The village public works department completed all construction with the exception of the recreation and amphitheatre buildings, pavilions, boardwalk and parking lot, which were built by area contractors.

Summer employees apply a final coat of stain to the footbridge.

Design for conservation

“We were brought in on the project early,” said John Ryan, president of the Ives/Ryan Group. “I suggested that since we were starting from scratch, it was a perfect opportunity to reduce stormwater in sewers through a series of vegetative bioswales, natural shoreline basin and wetlands. This would reduce maintenance costs as well, and they were very receptive to the suggestion.”

Ryan’s firm, established in 1973, couldn’t just come in and start drawing up plans. Some critical tests had to be conducted before the actual hard design could be done. For example, the former cornfield had to be tested for residual chemical carryover that would inhibit the germination of native seeds. That test results showed that the soil was free of chemicals that would inhibit establishment.

Turning the featureless former cornfield into a contoured park began with excavating the pond and distributing the 400 to 500 yards of soil within the park. Other soil was brought to the surface and used to form the rises primarily where a recreation center and amphitheater are located. Workers also placed large boulders from the excavation in strategic locations around the park.

Return of the natives

To control ongoing maintenance costs, only native plants were used in the wetlands. Plants genetically attuned to an area are much hardier with natural resistance to drought and disease, said Ryan. And, because of the plants selected, the wetlands shoreline should look natural within three years. The vegetative cover will provide ecological benefits such as keeping invasive species and unwanted weeds in check, alleviating the need for herbicides.

The pond is filled from park runoff that includes both grass and hard surfaces. “We have bioswales that help drain water from the parking lot into the wetlands,” Potts, who designed a rocked waterfall at the park entrance, pointed out. With constructed wetlands leading into the pond, essential filtering is accomplished before the water reaches the pond.

“The engineering firm for the village of Mt. Zion fine-tuned the master plan for soil movement and other engineering needs,” Potts said.

Grant Corum, public works director, noted that work had to be reshuffled at times. “We had to keep up with our regular work or postpone some things,” Corum said.

In addition to installing infrastructure that included water and sewer lines as well as storm sewers, public works staff of eight year-round employees and four part-timers completed rough grading, shaping and fine grading. Public works had to rent a dump truck, a backhoe and a bulldozer. Initially, workers had to travel 50 miles to pick up the construction equipment, but only until Altorfer, Inc., a CAT rental store, opened in nearby Decatur.

True to the region’s rich agricultural tradition, central Illinois is blessed with deep black loam, which provided a good base for growing grass and shrubs. Lush green turf is a major focus of any park, and deciding on the appropriate turfgrass for Fletcher Park was a significant part of park construction. Seed was purchased from Piatt County FS. Seed specialist Roy Flach cited the importance of conservation values in the seed selection.

“They wanted the lush, green look to the grass, but needed durability that could withstand high traffic for concerts and other events. We needed quick germination,” Flach said. “FS Premium Athletic Gold Mix was selected for its durability and toughness and ability to germinate in a short time.” Flach recommended soil tests to prepare a custom fertilizer mix because various soil types were present on the park surface following distribution of the excavated soil.

The park was seeded this spring, with the first mowing shortly before the Fourth of July Grand Opening. “In preparing for seeding, we gilled the soil after grading, and again after broadcast seeding,” Corum noted. “We applied the fertilizer after seeding then gilled again, and we used straw matting.” Biodegradable spikes were used to anchor the straw matting.

Architect Mike Matthys, Linden Group Architects, Orland Park, Ill., designed the four structures in the park. They include two open pavilions, an amphitheater and a recreation center. Like the landscape, ongoing maintenance costs were a major consideration in the design of the structures.

“We used materials that included steel and pre-finished masonry, which is lower maintenance than some other materials. We specified high- performance coatings on the steel to assure longevity,” said Matthys.

“We were fortunate to have the skills we needed in the public works department,” said Potts, who oversaw the project from beginning to end.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.