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Walter E. Long Park plan, all $800 million of it, gets parks board approval

Monday, July 8, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

With an eventual price tag expected to exceed $800 million and a timeline likely stretching more than two decades, members of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Board unanimously voted to approve a new master plan for East Austin’s Walter E. Long Park.

At last week’s meeting, the board drilled into several components of the five-phase plan for the park, which covers nearly 3,700 acres, including an 1,100-acre lake originally created to aid energy production at an Austin Energy facility nearby.

With the vote, the plan now goes to City Council in August for approval, which will then lead to ongoing work identifying funding sources, management structures, potential partners and other components for a vision that several board members admitted is intimidating in its size and scope.

“This is quite a plan … you have everything in here from Ferris wheels to horses to rowing; there’s a lot packed in here,” Board Chair Dawn Lewis said. “As somebody who used to do professional fundraising, the price tag of this makes me a little nervous. I know you said it’s scheduled to go over decades and we’re supposed to look at this more as a tool than set in stone.”

Parks and Recreation Department representative Greg Montes and consultant Tim Bargainer with Halff Associates of Dallas stressed that the plan will be executed in several small projects, each of which could have different funding sources and partnerships with local nonprofit and recreation groups. The section most likely to be improved first is along Decker Lake Road and already has some amenities and gathering spaces.

Montes said that area on the southern edge of the lake has already attracted interest from local and state rowing clubs and boating enthusiasts who could help provide up to $3 million in annual revenue for the section, which is expected to cost $140 million to improve.

The plan lays out four levels of use, from natural areas including protected prairies that would remain almost entirely untouched, to passive and active recreation areas, to small sections for gatherings and events that could be coordinated with the Travis County Expo Center, also located on the property.

Some discussion prior to the vote focused on a long-discussed plan by private developers to add a PGA-level golf course to the property. That idea was excluded from the final plan after three community feedback sessions found low levels of enthusiasm for it.

Montes said state and federal grants, bond money, vendor and concession fees and private partnerships are expected to make up the “potpourri” of funding sources for the various phases of the park.

Board Member Rich DePalma said improvements at the park are overdue since many area residents have to go elsewhere in the state for their recreation activities. He also suggested creating a tax increment financing district as another funding option because of the expectation of an increase in the area’s property values in the coming years.

“We have an opportunity here that I’ve been wanting to see with in Austin, and that is having tournament-level facilities, outside of golf, at a recreation level,” he said. “We have too many people who are traveling outside of Austin to get their recreation activities done and we’re just not meeting the needs of the people here in Austin. This gets us a large way there, and is the framework to start moving in that direction.”

Describing the plan as “several parks within a park,” Bargainer said city leaders need to commit over the long term to make the park a success.

“It will take decades to realize the plan,” he said. “I won’t see it realized in my lifetime, and I may not see it realized in my children’s lifetime – that’s the size and scale of this thing.”

Rendering courtesy of the city of Austin.

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