Saint John reopens 2 city water parks but slashes hours
Built to serve 'priority neighbourhoods,' splash pads have their hours cut from 70 per week to 40
The City of Saint John suddenly opened two of its three neighbourhood splash pads Wednesday, although with a surprise and significant reduction in service from last year.
"The City of Saint John is pleased to announce that the Rainbow Park and Flemming Court splash pads are available for public use as of July 15, 2020," read a statement issued by the city.
The openings come 40 days after provincial health officials had lifted a COVID-19-related ban on the structures.
There was no explanation of what caused the long delay in activating the structures, but children in both the north and south ends of the city quickly made use of the sudden openings in their neighborhoods.
In its statement, the city said "safety ambassadors" would be visiting the parks periodically to promote physical distancing and other practices required during the ongoing pandemic.
"We ask facility users to closely observe all posted signage and thank them for their patience as we work together as a community to mitigate the spread of COVID-19," read the statement.
Not mentioned in the statement is that parks will be operating at significantly reduced hours — 40 hours per week per park compared with 70 hours last year.
They are to be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays no matter the weather and shut down at 6 p.m. on the five days per week they do operate rather than last year's closing time of 8 p.m.
A third splash park across the harbour on Saint John's lower west side, which opened just last year at a cost of $700,000, remains closed. The city said work being carried out on an adjacent playground needs to be completed first.
The three pricey water parks were built for children in some of Saint John's lowest-income neighbourhoods and had been sitting mysteriously bone dry and idle this summer — even on sweltering days — as similar facilities elsewhere in the province have been open and operating for weeks
"Parents and kids are really missing it. We get calls almost daily," Anne Driscoll said about the splash pad in the centre of the Crescent Valley neighbourhood in Saint John's north end.
Driscoll is executive director of the Crescent Valley Resource Centre, which is directly across the street from the water park. She said in the eight previous summers the splash park has operated it has become a focal point for the community's approximately 400 families — many of whom are recent immigrants.
"It's very popular. It's great for all ages. It's safe. It's central. It's right in the heart of the neighbourhood. It's missed. Lots of kids in the neighbourhood would really appreciate it."
Splash parks were cleared to open in most of New Brunswick anytime after June 5 by public health officials as long as they follow a number of COVID-19-related restrictions on crowding.
The City of Fredericton decided against opening its splash pad at all this summer because of the pandemic but most communities that have one, including Dieppe, Blackville, Doaktown and Campbellton, which was cleared to open in late June, have turned them on for children to use.
The Town of Grand Bay-Westfield, just outside Saint John, opened its splash pad on June 22 and has operated it for 10 hours a day every day since without problem, according to recreation director Gary Clark.
But not so Saint John.
It invested heavily in splash parks as a neighbourhood building exercise and although it announced at the end of May all three would be opening this summer, that did not immediately happen.
No official reason was given.
Coun. David Hickey whose ward includes two of the water parks said the delay in opening the facilities is likely a combination of the city's well-publicized budget troubles and other logistical problems caused by the pandemic.
"Either way, disappointing," he said
Saint John Mayor Don Darling is on vacation this week and in a message suggested the city's communications director could explain the problem, but email and phone messages asking for that information were not immediately returned.
There was also no immediate explanation of service reductions at the parks now that two have been opened.
It was an unexpected turn in the attention paid by the city to a set of social infrastructure it had been championing as critical to its most vulnerable areas.
"Improving the quality of life for residents and revitalizing the neighbourhood," reads a billboard at one of the parks.
Saint John invested heavily in splash parks over the past decade with substantial federal and provincial government help in part to bring outdoor recreation directly to children and in part to help build a sense of community in what it calls priority neighbourhoods.
More than $1.5 million was spent to build separate structures in the north and south ends of the city and a third structure across the harbour on the lower west side, despite significant objections the cost was too extravagant for a city struggling under more than $200 million in debt.
"We are all living in a house [where] the windows leak, the roof is coming off, and the car in the front yard doesn't work, and we're going to put a pool in the backyard," said Coun. David Merrithew in 2017 in arguing not to build the third splash pad. "It doesn't make economic sense."
Merrithew lost that debate. Council felt the social benefits outweighed the cost and approved the third project. It was finished and opened last July, joining the other two which last year were both turned on for children to use June 10.
This year's openings come five weeks behind that schedule.