Portage, Wis., Park and Recreation Department: Where the North begins

Members of the team at the Portage Park and Recreation Department wear many hats. Along with the typical park and recreation activities, they also manage the city’s Silver Lake. This lake includes a white sand beach that offers a 43,750 square-feet swimming area. They provide lifeguards from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and perform lake management duties, which include weed harvesting on the eastern lobe of this 74-acre lake.

Manager of Parks, Recreation and Forestry Tim Raimer told us, “We currently have 15 developed parks, plus three undeveloped, which offer nature areas. Also, our Veterans Memorial Park offers 40-plus acres and includes five ball fields, four soccer fields, and is home to the Columbia County Fair. It is also the home for the Portage Flea Market, which is run by my family, and consistently attracts 70-plus venders and patrons to our city during the spring and summer months.”

The Portage parks tallied 146 park shelter reservations last year with about 3,650 people using the facilities from April through October. The heat of last summer showed the impact that their outdoor beach has upon the community by averaging over 100 people a day. Their recreation programs averaged about 495 adults and 395 youths, while other private recreational groups total an additional 590 participants.

When we asked Tim how the current economic situation has had an impact on their day-to-day efforts he told us, “The budget restraints that all of the city departments were required to meet have caused us to be more creative with revenue and income. To offset the budget cuts, we are selling advertising support signs on our baseball and soccer field fences. The community also supports the youth activities by sponsoring youth teams with logoed T-shirts and equipment, and we also hire less staff every year to handle more activities. Our youth user fees require only a $15 per-event fee and are still some of the lowest in the state.”

Veterans memorial

“I was asked to devise a way of moving a 50-plus-year-old World War II monument that was in peril along a state highway project. I brought together a group of veterans from the local VFW/Legion to help decide what would be the best thing to do and where we could safely move it to. In 1997, before deciding where to reassemble the monument, we started a removal project. On the very first day, after numbering every stone, we took the Roll of Honor granite piece off the top and, much to everyone’s surprise and dismay, the entire monument fell completely apart,” Tim said.

The group now had to look at forming a completely new memorial within one of the city parks, and the new design totaled about $60,000. Therefore, a fundraiser was started by selling dedication bricks to be placed in front of the new memorial. They hit their figure within three months and construction began.

The old granite Roll of Honor headstone was used as the footing stone for the new memorial at its new location at Blue Star Park. “Since then, we have raised well over $100,000 for construction and maintenance of this memorial. The park is now where the area veterans hold memorial services for Memorial Day, Veterans Day and soon to hold a city Vietnam veterans celebration. Next year, a memorial for those killed in action will be added for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the country and the City of Portage,” said Tim.

Overcoming challenges

The Portage Park and Recreation Department’s biggest challenge has always been a turnover of staff and the budget. This year, they are looking at about a 60 percent turnover within the recreation and lifeguard summer staff. Staff training is time consuming since all workers need to understand what the department is about and what is required of them by both the department and the parents of the participating youth.

Due to budget concerns, Tim is encouraged to create activities that need less staff. Creative fundraisers that feature local businesses are also encouraged and very much appreciated. Without the help of these activities and fundraisers the department would either have to raise the cost of programming, doubling the cost, or cancel programs.

Green efforts

“The city has started a green program which requires departments to look at green solutions for every move that is made. Choices in cleaning chemicals and lighting solutions are two of the current programs, and we are also in the process of building an information center in one of our parks, and plan to have as much green technology as can be afforded in its construction plan,” Tim told us.

Most popular facilities and programs

The pool and the beach are very popular. The department runs all of their swimming instruction at the pool and during the summer months it includes three other school districts from surrounding communities that bring their summer school students to Portage for lessons.

Most of the spring and summer youth sports activities are held at the 40-plus acre Veterans Memorial Fields. Collipp-Worden Park is the most reserved park during the summer, and it has a large picnic area, playground equipment, horseshoe pits, a sand volleyball court, plus both tennis and basketball courts. It is also the home of the new disc golf course.

“A groundbreaking is to be held this spring for a splash park located at Goodyear Park, which will also serve as the home of a new competitive skateboard facility. Pauquette Park is known as ’the prettiest park in the city’ and is often referred to as the ’jewel’ of Portage Parks. It was designed by John Nolan from Madison and was featured in some of the stories from the Pulitzer Prizewinning author, Zona Gale.

“With the history of Portage, being the third-oldest settlement in Wisconsin, we are working on National Park Systems recognition with other communities along the Fox River and the Wisconsin River.

“Portage is not only home to the Fort Winnebago, but the center and main community featuring the lock system that connects the southern flowing Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River and the northern flowing Fox River to Green Bay. These locks make Portage the only direct waterway that goes from the Atlantic Ocean through the center of the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico,” Tim concluded.

Portage has five full-time workers year-round and additional 80-100 seasonal employees. The Portage summer payroll is greater than all of the other city departments combined. Portage is definitely “where the north begins.”

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