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St. Elizabeth pursues plan to revitalize Canby Park

Proposed plan for a revamped Canby Park

Now that the city of Wilmington has completed a deal to put the upgrade and management of its Baynard Stadium largely in the hands of Salesianum School, St. Elizabeth School is seeking to partner with the city to revitalize Canby Park, with a preliminary plan that includes a stadium that would become the home field for the school’s football team.

“We’re calling it a revitalization,” says St. Elizabeth President Joe Papili, who grew up in the neighborhood, graduated from the parish high school in 1979, sent his children there and returned in 2014 to serve as the school’s athletic director. “We want to help the school, and we want to help the neighborhood.”

A preliminary sketch for the park, between Clayton and Union streets in the southwest corner of the city, shows a football field surrounded by a quarter-mile track, a baseball diamond, two softball fields, an all-purpose field, basketball and tennis courts, walking trails and plenty of wide open green space.

“We want folks in the park again. We want to have more people walking around. We want kids to have a place to go, a safe environment,” Papili says.

And he also hopes to have home fields for the school’s athletic teams. “Except for baseball and softball, our home games are like away games,” he says. St. Elizabeth teams’ home fields include Baynard Stadium for football, Hockessin Montessori School for field hockey, Kirkwood Soccer Club for soccer, and Alapocas Run State Park for lacrosse.

Matt Gray of Bear, a University of Delaware freshman who graduated from St. Elizabeth in June, sees multiple benefits from the plan, including “increased viability for the school, a place to host home football games, better community health, reduction of crime, more equity in homes and more school and community unity.”

Whether the project moves on a fast track or at a pace more suitable for the walking trails remains to be seen. “We just completed the agreement with Salesianum for Baynard Stadium, and that took two years,” notes John Rago, deputy chief of staff for policy and communications for Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki.

The city has made one commitment to improving the park: approving a $419,000 contract to Newber Demolition and Environmental Services of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, for the demolition of the park’s swimming pool and locker room, which had been shut down more than a decade ago and has since become a community eyesore. Work is expected to begin in November, Rago says. When the demolition is complete, he says, Purzycki will reconvene a working group “to discuss a path forward for Canby Park.”

The money for the demolition comes from a $300,000 appropriation approved by the General Assembly and another $120,000 in community transportation funds allocated by retiring state Sen. Robert I. Marshall, D-Wilmington West, whose district includes the park.  

“The city is very appreciative of the senator’s interest in this project,” Rago says.

Marshall, who led a working group of state, city and New Castle County officials who studied Canby Park needs earlier this year, says he expects the project to pick up steam in 2019.

“Neighbors [of the park] are supportive, but they want to see the details – and rightfully so – and a visual of what it would actually look like,” Marshall says.

Sherry Dorsey Walker, who is unopposed in Tuesday’s election for state representative for the district that includes Canby Park, praised St. Elizabeth for taking the lead in the project and for its transparency in soliciting community opinion and keeping residents informed.

“It’s not an issue of St. Elizabeth taking over the park,” says Walker, a St. Elizabeth graduate. “It’s a matter of St. Elizabeth spearheading the initiative. When you have a project, you need someone to take the lead.”

There are numerous issues to be resolved, Marshall says, starting with finalizing the layout of the multiple athletic and play areas envisioned for the park. Then there’s the matter of the size of the stadium, whether it would be lighted to permit games to played after dark, and whether area residents would seek restrictions on nighttime use of the athletic facilities.

Walker says she knows some neighbors will have concerns if athletic fields are lighted, but she notes that the football season is less than three months long, and police provide security and traffic control when games are played, so that could make the neighborhood safer.

On top of that comes the question of whether park management would change. Currently, the city is responsible for park management and maintenance, including for the portion of the park that is outside city limits and is owned by New Castle County. St. Elizabeth, which now uses the park’s baseball and softball fields for its home games and other portions of the park for practices, and the other athletic groups that regularly use the park, must secure permits from the city for these uses.

St. Elizabeth isn’t interested in getting involved with park management and would prefer to maintain the status quo. “We’re not Salesianum,” Papili says, referring to the larger Catholic boys school that will raise $15 million to $20 million to renovate the aging Baynard Stadium, its home football field, and then take over its operation and management under a 50-year lease from the city. The lease will require that Salesianum make the stadium available for public use for an average of 90 daylight hours per month and that schools now using the stadium for athletic events can continue to do so.

St. Elizabeth, however, is willing to put some of its resources into improving the park, and perhaps establishing a form of public-private partnership. “We’re going to go out and raise some funds,” Papili says, presumably by soliciting businesses, alumni and others with connections to the parish and its schools.

Two years ago, he says, ballpark estimates of about $5 million for the project were being kicked around. “With design changes, it could go up, it might go down, but we’re probably in the neighborhood of $5 million to $6 million,” he says.

“We’re not talking about a 4,000-seat stadium. Most of the work would be moving earth,” Papili says. For the stadium, the only structures likely to be built would be bleachers, restrooms, a locker room and a concession stand.

Papili and Marshall envision that the portion of the park that would be redeveloped for athletic purposes would resemble the multipurpose athletic facilities of the private Tower Hill School, along Pennsylvania Avenue near the city’ western border.

Papili and Marshall expect the planning pace to step up in early 2019. Both would like to see planning near completion by mid-year, but the city isn’t ready to set a schedule. Because no other funds have been appropriated for the project, it is unlikely that any improvements could begin until after next July 1, the start of the new fiscal year for the state, city and county governments.

“Getting rid of the pool, putting in lighting, parking areas and playgrounds, nice fields where kids can exercise – all that will revitalize the community, and people will want to come back,” Papili says.

Two incoming state lawmakers whose districts include Canby Park agree with Papili’s assessment.

Walker, who is also a former Wilmington city councilwoman, says it’s important for the many young families in the area to have a place where they feel comfortable taking their children to play or just relax. She hopes final plans include playground areas, with seating for parents and grandparents, as well as barbecue or picnic areas suitable for family gatherings or social events organized by neighborhood groups.

“This is a very young district,” says Elizabeth Lockman, a Democrat who will succeed Marshall in the state Senate. During her campaign, “the number one thing people brought up was that there are not enough positive opportunities for young kids to get engaged.” An improved park with athletic fields and recreational spaces will help meet those needs, she says.

Neither Walker nor Lockman have gotten involved with funding issues associated with the project, but both said they would push for state support after they take office in January. Given Wilmington’s perennial tight budget situation, Walker is intrigued by the suggestion that St. Elizabeth would initiate some sort of public-private partnership. “We wouldn’t want to get into a situation where the city is unable to maintain whatever would be created at Canby Park,” she says.

Credit Larry Nagengast / Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
St.Elizabeth grad Matt Gray wants sees potential for a public-private partnership to upgrade Canby Park

Gray, the St. Elizabeth graduate, intends to get involved with fundraising for the project. He’d like to see both the school and area homeowners contribute to the cost as part of the public-private partnership. Getting residents involved in financing the effort, he says, is more likely to ensure that their needs are met and will increase the community’s vested interest in making sure the park is well maintained. Gray spent part of his senior year at St. Elizabeth developing a framework for his funding model while participating in Dual School, an experimental project-based learning program based at1313 Innovation in Hercules Plaza in downtown Wilmington.

When the Canby Park study began, the initial thought was that improved facilities there might also be used by Howard High School of Technology, on Wilmington’s East Side, which also has no athletic fields of its own. Howard now plays its home football games at Baynard Stadium and baseball games on the diamond at 18th and Van Buren streets, near Baynard Stadium. Instead, the working group that Marshall concluded that a better approach would be to improve Kirkwood Park, located behind Howard, and build a football stadium there. The working group recommended that the city take the lead in working with school and state officials on developing a plan for Kirkwood Park.

For now, Lockman says, the impending removal of the “empty, blighted swimming pool” will provide a boost to the community, and the planning and design work that follows should lead to more improvements.

“People want to see it happen,” she says. “They want to see it done, and done right.”   

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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