by Dave Walker
It's been known as McEuen Playfield for the last four decades. But before that it was home to a sawmill, and then, during World War II, a tract of small cottages. It even served a stint as the Kootenai County Fairgrounds. Where it's going in the next 20 years has been the focus for a group known as the "Committee of Nine," which I have served on for the past year.
Last Tuesday night, by a vote of 5-1, the Coeur d'Alene City Council adopted the long-range design concept presented by our committee. While not a concrete plan, it does give direction to future use of McEuen and, in the long run, may well shape policy about other public property in Coeur d'Alene.
The land was first acquired by the city in the early 1950s in a swap with Kootenai County. Citizens opposed to a potential commercial development banded together and preserved it as public green space, later named for Mae McEuen, a member of the movement and supporter of youth sports. (Contrary to what you might have heard, Mrs. McEuen never owned the property nor did she donate it to the city with stipulations about its use.)
McEuen's green space has evolved over the years to be the home of two softball fields, a baseball field, tennis courts and some playground equipment. The balance of the acreage is devoted to parking for cars and boat trailers.
To help envision the future of the downtown area and adjoining public spaces, the city hired the planning firm of Walker-Macy from Portland, Ore. Their report recognized the value of the McEuen property and suggested that it be enhanced to "world class" regardless of what activities were featured.
We held a half-day workshop where 25 different user groups (tennis, baseball, softball, boating, etc.) were invited to come and provide information on each of their activities and needs. Next, we accepted presentations from half a dozen different individuals and groups, each bringing their own dream plan for McEuen. Incorporating ideas and input from all these presentations along with other possibilities discussed within the committee, three concepts were drawn up by the Coeur d'Alene landscape design firm of Hatch, and four open house workshops were held around the city.
Each of the plans was dissected and various aspects discussed with the goal not to pick which of the three plans people liked best, but what features and locations of each were most appealing. Some of the major changes were a lowered parking lot to enhance views, moving and resizing basketball and tennis courts, removing the baseball field and relocating the boat trailer parking. The resulting concept was what the Council adopted.
During these public meetings, one element that was almost unanimously agreed upon was boat trailer relocation. Current parking sits on what has to be one of the most valuable pieces of property in the Lake City, the southwest corner of the McEuen site, the keystone that connects the McEuen green space, Tubbs Hill and the lake itself. This corner offers a spectacular view, and replacing blacktop with "people space" met little opposition.
On the other end of the spectrum, the most divisive issue was the proposed removal of the baseball field, predominantly used by American Legion teams. This topic alone is a prime example of where sentimentality may perhaps override logic.
During the user group meeting, the committee was informed that due to location and city ordinances, Legion teams are unable to raise funds by selling something as American as baseball, outfield advertising. Also, we were told, bringing tournaments to Coeur d'Alene is difficult since the adjoining parking lot doesn't allow free parking. Clearly, this baseball field is a poor fit; American Legion baseball deserves a better venue.
The committee's long-range plan calls for the removal of this baseball field from McEuen. But due to the mandate of replacing current facilities with equal or better ones along with an obvious desire to provide the Lake City with first-class amenities, this ball field won't be going anywhere unless and until a replacement is built. Obviously, this would be a major project, but the City is ready to take the first step and is negotiating for a piece of property where such a baseball stadium could be located.
Sadly, even those who agree Legion ball deserves better are reluctant to buy into this concept. "Tradition" and "How will we pay for it?" are probably the two most frequently cited reasons against the move. As a growing city moving into the future, it's hard to believe anyone would not, at bare minimum, agree to open the door to possibilities for the coming years.
Nevertheless, the City Council looked toward that future and adopted this long-range plan. So now, in a city with so much "can-do" attitude, it will be interesting to see if Coeur d'Alene is really headed to the future or if we'll just hang in the '60s.
Dave Walker is a former Coeur d'Alene city councilman.