Next summer's picnics and playtime at Benson Park will look a little different.
After more than a year of planning and two community meetings to gather input on changes, the City of Omaha is moving forward with a series of upgrades at the popular park near North 70th Street and Military Avenue. Planned changes include new playground equipment, more fishing spots and safer parking areas that don't allow park visitors to drive up on the grass.
Brook Bench, the city's interim parks director, said officials have had Benson Park near the top of their list for improvements because “it's been years” since the equipment there was updated. But over the years, traffic in and out of the park has remained high.
“This one is really driven by the use of the park,” Bench said. “It's so used on the weekends — this is a big enough park where we can do these improvements, but don't have the facilities to do them.”
The city asked for input from neighborhood residents and groups at two meetings, held in August and December.
Bench said many of the plans grew out of suggestions made at those meetings. He said many people came with similar priorities for the park, including more spots for picnics and more places to fish around the park's lagoon.
“We really want to incorporate new picnic pads, kind of like what we have at Elmwood (Park),” he said.
New fishing spots will be added on the east side of the lagoon. Changes to the picnic spots include new tables, grills and paths. Some picnic areas will be made more accessible for people with disabilities. An existing shelter will get new paint.
Replacing Benson Park's aging playground equipment is also a top priority, said Liz Moldenhauer, president of the Benson Neighborhood Association.
Neighborhood leaders have made sure the Benson was placed on a list of parks participating in a new Omaha Parks Foundation program that provides matching funds from the city and from Blue Cross Blue Shield for money raised from private donors.
“We want to make sure we get new, safe playground equipment for our parks,” Moldenhauer said.
The foundation's Playground Initiative, launched this summer, provides $50,000 in matching funds from the city if donors for an individual park can raise the same amount. Benson is also on a list of parks eligible for $10,000 in matching funds from Blue Cross if private donors pledge that amount.
Bench said he hopes the new equipment could be installed in the spring, but playground renovations won't begin until Benson Park supporters are able to raise $50,000.
As of the community meeting in early December, donors had only contributed a total of $622.
Benson is one of 15 parks participating in the foundation's effort.
So far, the most successful fundraising effort has been for Schroeder/Vogel Park, located near South 51st and Hickory Streets. Amber Miller, the foundation's executive director, said that park has close to $10,000 in the bank.
Meanwhile, other upgrades at Benson Park are already in the works, funded with $300,000 set aside in the city's Capital Improvement Program.
Already, the park's pavilion has been brought up to standards required by the Americans With Disabilities Act, with new ramps and accessible entrances. In the spring, crews will install a barrier that will keep people from parking on the grass, close to where people spread out picnic blankets.
Bench said the parking issue has been a common concern.
“It's really a safety issue,” he said.
Longer-term ideas for the park include finding a new use for the ice rink, planting fruit trees and building a water playground area, but Bench said those wouldn't be included in this round of improvements.
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