Turnout low at Phil Hardberger Park Hearings

City officials have long touted Voelcker Ranch as a destination park — a spectacular landscape with centuries-old oak trees that will draw people from all over town, much as Brackenridge Park does.

City officials have long touted Voelcker Ranch as a destination park — a spectacular landscape with centuries-old oak trees that will draw people from all over town, much as Brackenridge Park does.

But if the public turnout at a series of hearings last week is an indication, elected officials face a challenge in their effort to turn the property into a citywide attraction.

The first hearing Monday on the East Side drew a handful of citizens. A Wednesday hearing on the Southwest Side drew less than a dozen.

By contrast, the North Side hearing — held adjacent to the park — drew an overflow crowd of more than 250 people.

In pushing for the city to purchase the 311-acre North Side site, Mayor Phil Hardberger invested political capital and dipped into his campaign funds to promote passage of this summer's bond issue. Some $33.5 million from the bond sale was allocated to purchase a 204-acre parcel. The city had earlier paid $16 million for an adjoining 107 acres.

Because of Voelcker's location — 10 miles north of the city's center — it remains to be seen if people living on the opposite end of town will travel 30 miles or longer round-trip to visit the park, which will open in 2009.

The hearings were intended to attract a cross-section of citizens and get their input about what features they'd like at the park.

The disparate attendance figures were not lost on the mayor.

"I think there has to be more of an education process," Hardberger said. "The further you get away from the park, the less interest people are going to have, but I believe that is because some people don't know that much about it. I'm sure that a lot of people think it does not pertain to them because it is located on the other side of town."

But he's confident that "once people realize what a jewel that is, what natural beauty exists on that land, they will come out."

The land is perhaps the last large undisturbed parcel on the parks-poor North Side, where the commercial development boom has led to vast areas denuded of trees.

Citizens' suggestions for the park included skate parks, soccer and athletic fields and picnic and recreation facilities, but most said they wanted as little development of the site as possible. That's in keeping with the mayor's vision for the former dairy cattle farm that Max and Minnie Voelcker operated for a century.

"My feeling is we all want pretty much the same thing — not too much revision to the natural landscape, saving as many trees as can be saved," Hardberger said. "The vast majority believes there should not be playing fields or soccer fields or things like that."

His goal is to turn the site into a showcase urban wildlife area, the 21st-century version of the much-used Brackenridge Park.

One resident put it more succinctly.

"Bring the Hill Country nature and wildlife experience 40 miles closer to San Antonio," she suggested.
"Design it so that it would be possible to take a 45-minute hike and not come in contact or see a single man-made structure," another said.

The mile-long, half-mile-wide site has more than 9,000 live oaks, an average of 29 per acre, in addition to dozens of towering heritage oaks, some of which have been around since before Texas became a state. A survey of wildlife is under way.

One of the main challenges designers face is how to make the two parcels of land into one "complete" park, said Steven Stimson, whose Massachusetts-based firm, along with Virginia-based D.I.R.T. Studios will create the park's master plan.

How much the finished park ends up costing is far from certain. City officials won't know the final tab until next year, when the conceptual master plan, drawn in part from citizen comments at last week's hearings, is presented for City Council consideration.

Officials said fundraisers — keyed to Hardberger's heavy backing of the park — would pay some of the development costs. "It is going to take time to happen, but I am almost positive that citizens from all over the city will adopt this place as their city park," Hardberger said.