Contractors successfully partner on a new western Illinois park project

A constructed ski hill to encourage year-round use, bioswales to help manage runoff, and mulched borders to minimize maintenance are a few of the features incorporated into the new Santa Fe Park in Chillicothe, Ill. Located along the Illinois River in western Illinois, Chillicothe’s historical connection to the Santa Fe Railroad that runs through the city of approximately 6,000 people is echoed in this newest park. Thanks to the efforts of an involved community and cooperative work among all project participants, the park has become a reality.

This undeveloped park site offered little to the community.

From bioswales planted in short native grasses to temporarily retain storm water to mulched borders that eliminate edging, Santa Fe Park fills the bill for low maintenance. Keeping maintenance to a minimum is important for the Park District. In addition to its director, it has just one part-time, year-round employee. The district adds six summer employees because it must mow 200 acres of parkland.

A smooth operation

It’s not often that everything comes together – planning, weather, deliveries, working relationships – to produce an almost-perfect project. The active participants in the new Santa Fe Park project agree that this project has been the exception. From planning to finished product, the project moved along smoothly with few challenges.

Low-maintenance plants surround the original park feature in an attractive new landscape design.

“Everybody worked together,” says Keith Zappo, president of PDH Landscape Group, the landscape subcontractor to the general contractor, Aupperle Construction, Morton, Ill. “The general contractor helped us out with labor and equipment when we needed it, and we helped them out occasionally. The architect was great to work with as we made plant selections. We made some plant changes based on availability and cost, and we were actually able to get them larger plants giving the project a more mature setting.”

Prior to the project, the city-owned property had only one piece of play equipment and a sandlot baseball diamond. “A limited budget prevented the city from upgrading the property,” says Kevin Yates, park district executive director. “The city agreed to deed the property to the park district if we would add a water feature.”

The Farnsworth Group, Peoria, Ill., presented a plan that included a splash pad. “We really didn’t give them any directives,” says Yates. “We wanted to see what they could develop for us. We were really pleased when we saw their plan. Our board decided we could do this.”

Bruce Brown, Farnsworth landscape architect, adds, “We were excited about doing the project that would give families a place to go with their kids. We saw some opportunities to develop the park with more than the water feature, the splash pad that was part of the agreement.”

Brown designed a 15-foot elevation into the plan for the formerly flat, 4-acre site. “It was an opportunity to get the kids up in the air where they could see the park around them,” he says. “We cut a hole through the berm and put in a footbridge.”

As an incentive to encourage year-round use of the park, Brown designed the berm to serve as a winter sledding hill. Hills are in short supply across the Illinois prairie, and while the height is minimal, it is an exciting feature for young children who have had few chances to experience the popular winter activity.

The $950,000 project was funded in part by a grant from the Chillicothe Building Foundation, and supplemented by a significant contribution from the BNSF Railway that now owns the Santa Fe Railroad. The train-themed park highlights the connection of the railroad to the community. A Santa Fe Railroad retiree donated historical railroad signs, and additional funding came through the issuance of bonds and a commemorative brick paver purchase program.

Brown compliments the work of the park district board. “Once they made a decision, they didn’t waver. They were great to work with. A lot of kudos goes to the city of Chillicothe on this project, too. The city very actively supported the project and the now-retired major visited the site regularly,” he says.

Tree and plant selection

“We were fortunate in that the park is situated on top of very sandy soil that’s common to areas near the Illinois River,” adds Brown. “Water percolates well, producing a very well-drained soil for turfgrass and plantings.”

The park is located in a low area that collects storm water. “We included bioswales along the property edge to retain the water temporarily, but with the sandy soil it percolates well and dries out quickly,” says Brown. The bioswales are planted in short native grasses that require mowing only two or three times a year.

The Farnsworth Group, Peoria, Ill., designed a 15-foot-elevation into the formerly flat 4-acre park site, which allowed for the incorporation of some neat new landscape features.

About 20 trees including serviceberry, oaks and maples were designated for the park. “We wanted some variety in shape and color,” says Brown. “One of the first things we did was transplant four large oak trees,” Zappo says. “We used Elwin Tree Farm, Elwin, Ill., with their 90-inch tree spade.” Ornamental Karl Forester grasses planted near the building add winter interest. Daylilies and groundcover grace the park entrance. Stoneleaf Nursery, Eureka, Ill., provided the trees and ornamentals. Turfgrass covers the undeveloped portion of the park. Youngsters use it as an open play area. Another section of the park will be planted in wildflowers this spring.

The retaining wall serves a needed function, and adds interest to the park.

Structures in the park include a pre-fab building with restrooms and storage. In addition to a gazebo located near age-specific playground equipment, 21 stone benches carved from boulders from a southern Missouri quarry offer lots of seating opportunities.

Focus on quality

“I’m very selective about what I bid on,” says Zappo of PDH Landscape Group. “I want to work on projects I can be proud of.” Zappo, a Pennsylvania native, noted that his work as an employee at Moon Nursery, Yardley, Pa., gave him a strong background in plant selection and in performing high-quality commercial landscape work. Zappo uses subcontracted labor usually from local union halls in his projects. He says he had five or six people working on the Santa Fe Park project.

The general contractor, Aupperle Construction, completed extensive grading and shaping that included building the berm. A local resident donated the topsoil, which came from pond construction on his property. PDH completed finish grading of the soil with its incorporated topsoil and mixed in a starter 19-19-19 fertilizer.

“We initially planted, mulched and staked the trees,” says Zappo. PDH broadcast seeded the turfgrass in late September with a mixture of species and cultivars from Jacklin Seed – 40 percent ryegrass, 30 percent Kentucky bluegrass and 30 percent creeping red fescue. Slopes were protected from erosion by American Green straw mats. Their use aided germination of the turfgrass seed.

“The areas with the mats were about a week ahead of other areas in germination,” says Zappo. “We were lucky and caught several weeks with a few rainy days followed by a few dry days,” says Zappo, who purchased the seed, fertilizer and straw mats from FS Custom Turf, Bloomington, Ill.

Large oak trees transplanted with a 90-inch tree spade add a mature look to the new park.

The area lies north of the transition zone and snow cover is the norm. While icing occasionally occurs which is detrimental to new turf, it’s hoped that this year’s winter brings snow cover to insulate the new turf. Zappo expects some areas to need reseeding in the spring. Even so, he’s confident of a strong turf cover will develop with s spring rains.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. You can contact her at [email protected].