WILKES-BARRE — Four years after its unveiling, the $23 million River Common park along the Susquehanna River in downtown Wilkes-Barre looks shabby and neglected, with too many weeds and a rarely used fountain, says Luzerne County Councilman Edward Brominski.
“It’s a disgrace,” said Brominski, who started publicly raising the issue several months ago. “The flower beds are supposed to be tended to, and they’re loaded with weeds. The fountain is supposed to be there for kids to enjoy.”
Fairmount Township resident Mike Giamber, who is running for a seat on the 11-member council, has been posting videos on YouTube, most recently in July, showing weeds and high grass around benches and walkways.
“The weeds are killing all these plantings,” Giamber said. “The problem is the county builds these new projects but never builds in maintenance for them.”
County Operational Services Division Head Chris Belleman said he plans to step up maintenance but stressed the park wasn’t designed to be aggressively manicured because of the cost and need to keep some growth to prevent erosion of the earthen flood protection wall.
“The River Common will never look like a golf course or botanical garden. It’s going to be shaggier than someone’s lawn,” said Belleman.
The county must fund River Common maintenance, even though the park is tied to the Wyoming Valley Levee, because it’s recreational, said Belleman, who is transitioning to a different job overseeing the levee as county Flood Protection Authority executive director.
A fee on levee-protected properties can only be used for expenses directly related to flood control, he said.
The county is paying Exeter-based Evergreen Landscaping Services Inc. $29,710 this year to cut grass, trim edges and remove weeds and debris from planting beds and walkways at the River Common and certain segments of the levee in Forty Fort, Kingston, Edwardsville, Plymouth and Wyoming.
Evergreen, which was the lone bidder, has completed all work directed by the county, Belleman said. He spotted weeds during a family fitness weekend event at the River Common at the end of August, he said, and the company immediately addressed them.
“They’re out there. They have been, but I will take a more active role monitoring the work in the future. I think we can do a better job,” Belleman said.
Belleman has received other complaints that the grass is too high, he said, but he emphasized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommends the grass remain at 4 to 6 inches so it doesn’t dry out and lose its stabilizing hold.
Added mulch would help with weeds
Pat Kane, owner of Evergreen Landscaping, said the weeds are a direct result of the county’s resistance to invest in mulch since the park’s 2009 overhaul.
Mulch was included when the county spent about $600,000 designing and adding landscaping at that time. The project included the addition of about 250 trees, 500 shrubs, 12,000 perennials and 50,000 pieces of ground cover in the stretch from the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center to the courthouse on River Street, officials have said.
Mulch should be added to the planting beds and bases of trees and shrubbery every year to retain moisture and prevent weeds, Kane said. The original project did not include weed barrier fabric, he said.
The initial layer of mulch at the River Common would cost an estimated $10,000 to $15,000, but the expense would decrease in subsequent years because less mulch is needed to top an existing base, Kane said.
Kane has recommended mulch several times, he said, but officials have cited the county’s financial struggles.
Evergreen’s county contract requires six planting bed weed maintenance sessions per year, and that isn’t enough to stay on top of weeds without fresh mulch, Kane said. Without mulch, county officials would have to seek more frequent weeding when the landscaping contract comes up for bid again next year if they want to rid the park of weeds, which would increase the cost, he said.
The park’s plantings also were less vibrant this year because it was a dry season and the River Common has no sprinkler system, he said.
Kane agrees the River Common lawn should not be scalped because higher grass is less susceptible to fungus and drought.
He is willing to meet with any county officials to discuss the landscaping and work handled by his business, he said. “I’m doing exactly what their request-for-proposals calls for,” Kane said.
Testing required to use fountain
The fountain at the River Common complex, which also includes an amphitheater and fishing pier/landing, was turned on once this season for the RiverFest, Belleman said.
County officials decided in 2011 to use the fountain only for major special events because the county can’t afford the state-mandated water testing.
The fountain, located at the Millennium Circle levee portal opening between the courthouse and Market Street Bridge, is regulated as a public swimming pool because it contains a pool of underground water that is circulated through a filtration system. That means the chlorine and pH levels must be tested twice a day when the fountain is operating.
County levee crews would have to be paid overtime to check the water chemistry on weeknights and weekends when most people would have free time to visit the fountain, officials have said.
Fountain damage caused by record September 2011 Susquehanna flooding has been repaired, but, Belleman said, a fitting at the pump house that feeds water to the fountain broke last week. He wants to fix that mechanical issue in time to operate the fountain during a chalk festival later this month.
A plan to target skateboarding at the Millennium Circle also is on Belleman’s to-do list.
Police are regularly called, but enforcement is difficult because skateboarders quickly disperse, county officials have said. Grinding by skateboards damages the sandstone finish at the portal area. “They’re violating the rules of the park and causing a lot of damage. Unfortunately, it’s become the world’s most expensive skate park,” Belleman said.
The county relies on the volunteer Riverfront Parks Committee to handle event programming and fundraising, and the organization has been trying to find sponsors to hold more public and private events at the park.
Though the recreational parts of the River Common don’t fall under the auspices of the flood authority, Belleman said he will continue to focus on ways to improve the complex in his new authority post because the park and levee are linked and viewed as one by the public.
“I think it’s a great setting, a great community asset,” Belleman said.