The Story Behind the Park

How did a small, rural city like Sutherlin suddenly find itself with a new 200+ acre park?

How could a small group of citizens with little or no experience in serving on a nonprofit, fundraising, or grant writing raise over $4 million?

The Idea

All projects start with one or two people who see a need and propose a solution. Timing is important; in our situation, we learned the city was considering buying the Ford’s Pond property, but not for a park. There were no parks on the rapidly developing west side of Sutherlin. We knew the city’s 2005 Parks and Open Space Plan identified a future park at Ford’s Pond (with even a photo on the cover). We presented before the city council and were told it was “a great idea, but there was no money for a park.” Meeting adjourned. 

Challenge Accepted

Starting a nonprofit can be challenging–try finding board members when nobody has spare time. It took almost two years to get our board policies in place. Policies maintain standards through board changes. Your mission statement keeps the board focused. If it’s not in your mission statement, the answer is always “no.”

Our new board authorized funding for board leadership, law/policies, and fundraising training to help with recruitment. We didn’t want to miss any community “gems” who lacked experience but had initiative.

The Master Plan

Once the city agreed to a park, we helped them obtain a 2016 Local Government Grant for planning and matched it with a grant from The Ford Family Foundation. A firm was hired to complete the park’s master plan, which notes the property’s physical constraints and development potential. The plan also documents the public input process and guides future planning decisions through changes in city staffing and elected officials.

The plan incorporates diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and opinions, avoiding decisions made by a select few behind closed doors. When the public was allowed to use the property, feedback was collected on what users wanted. But it was more important to find out why people weren’t using the property; what were their needs? Meetings were held to listen to the public, stakeholders, and project partners. Many found the property inaccessible and did not feel safe due to a fear of falling on the uneven and steep trail. The public wanted Ford’s Pond to be an accessible, open-space park.

The Friends encouraged the city to incorporate Placemaking principles into the park design including adding a food truck pad, grouping park benches, and having an open playground layout to create a welcoming community gathering place

The Master Plan was adopted by the city in 2017.

Master Plan

Our Vision

While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a federal law and a condition for Oregon State Parks grant funding, the Friends wanted the design to include Universal Design principles, which eliminate barriers, promote social interactions, and often reduce costs.

We wanted the park to be enjoyed by people with diverse needs and abilities, including young children, older adults, or those with temporary impairments. We knew of the multigenerational needs of our community and the health concerns of our aging population. We recognized the park could be a venue to revitalize Sutherlin’s economic status, by bringing in interstate travelers and county residents. Our fundraising and grant writing would be focused on this complete vision.

Thinking Outside the Box

Our main hurdle was the city council’s reluctance to commit any funding towards this park. But we knew the $3 million used by the city to purchase the property could be used for one state parks grant match until that option expired after six years.

The master plan was organized into realistic project funding goals. We identified partnerships and private foundations and began fundraising. The property did not show well on paper so we led tours for potential funders and let the magic happen. We shared our vision through letter writing, speaking at events, social media, canvassing businesses, and producing brochures and signs. When COVID-19 canceled all fundraising events, we sent a bulk mailer to every Sutherlin address.

Rolling Up Our Sleeves

The Friends would need to write the state parks grants on behalf of the city, which lacked staffing resources. Hundreds of hours were spent writing and presenting before the grant committees, but our first attempts proved unsuccessful.

The state uses scoring guidelines to distribute public funds based on their outreach to determine needs. We knew our project would achieve what the state wanted to fund, but our applications needed to score higher to be awarded.

The Funding Aligns

For our next grant writing attempt, the city decided to donate the old Central Avenue asphalt grindings as a “match.” This was a game changer but not just financially. The public began parking on the grindings stored at the park—an instant parking lot, giving us chances to record usage and needs.

We secured additional private foundation grants increasing the match for the Oregon State Parks grants. Then we matched state grants to other state grants. In all, seven park grants (over $3.2 million) were awarded to the city for Phases 1 and 2, funded through the Federal Highway Administration, Oregon Lottery Funds, and the U.S. Dept. of Interior.

We completed five out of six projects in the 20-year master plan in just seven years!

Place-Keeping!

For 10 years, the Friends volunteered to create this community park. While the City of Sutherlin is responsible for its care and maintenance, the Friends will continue to maintain the hillside trails and assist with maintenance and improvements as long as we have volunteers and funding.

But that is not enough to keep this park safe, clean, and vibrant. The Friends begin our second decade turning to another principle of Placemaking: a great design is important, but regular programming is needed to bring people to the park. Having the community connect with the park promotes stewardship and ensures the park’s long-term sustainability.

Programming has been suggested including pop-up events, temporary exhibits, exercise classes, lectures, games, etc., but this relies on volunteers and donations. The city does not have a parks and recreation department. The Community needs to be involved to keep Ford’s Pond Community Park a place cared for, enjoyed, and loved.