CALEXICO — Gabriela Garcia has a history with Heber Park and a unique vantage point for its coming multi-million transformation from a simple green space to what is planned to be state-of-the-art community facility.
For Garcia, better known
as “Gabby,” it’s been her neighborhood park for more than 50 years, where she
and her four sisters and one brother grew up after moving into a house directly
across the street in 1969, when she was just 6 years old.
It’s also been the
neighborhood park for her own family, where for about 30 years she has lived in
almost the same spot but in another house, next to her mother’s home on the
same lot. There, she raised her own son, Dominic, now 22, in the 900 block of
“I think it’s really
exciting. I can’t wait. It’s going to be something to see once it develops,”
Garcia said during a Feb. 28 interview. “I really care about what happens to
(Heber Park). I want it to be an area people can go and enjoy.”
This was just a few days
after a Feb. 25 announcement Calexico had been awarded an $8.5 million state grant
to redevelop the park, double it in size and build the city its first indoor
gymnasium it will not have to share with the local school district.
The grant is not a total
surprise to Garcia, though. Her unique vantage point also extends from her job.
For 30 years she has
worked for the city, and for the past several years she has been clerk to the
Calexico City Council. From there she got the chance to witness first-hand the
process to seek out these funds and develop a plan to turn her neighborhood
park into what will be more than five acres of amenities like the west side of
town has never seen.
A gym is only part of
what is planned. The grant will cover the cost of new basketball courts, a
soccer pitch, an updated playground area, new restrooms and picnic areas, a walking
and bike path and parking lot.
Overall, city officials
continue to work with limited resources on other parks around town as well,
including an ongoing expansion at Adrian C. Cordova Park. The two refurbished
parks will give the city two crown jewels in its parks system, City Manager
David Dale said.
Cordova will be a hotspot
on the east side with the ballplayers of the community as lighted fields will
be the focus. Heber will be the west side’s premier recreational space.
Meanwhile, Mayor Bill
Hodge said he wants to take stock of all city green spaces and create a
five-year master plan to focus on improving all parks. Calexico has about 15
parks in all, from the 15-acre Cordova (the largest) to Cortez Park, which just
comes in under a half-acre (the smallest).
Growing Up Across from Heber Park
Tucked among a
neighborhood of a dozen-plus older homes and several dozen commercial
businesses closer to Highway 98 and Imperial and Emerson avenues, Heber Park is a mid-size patch of green as
far as parks in the city go at 2.35 acres.
With a fairly modern
playground in one corner and some restrooms, Heber is just a few dozen trees
dotting the landscape and not much else. It’s a single, square-shaped city
block bordered by Ollie and Harold avenues and Roosevelt and Sheridan streets.
“It was the place to be
when you got out of school,” Garcia said recently when reminiscing about the
Garcia said she spent
countless afternoons riding the old metal merry-go-round and playing on the
teeter-totters after school.
“We’d play baseball,
softball. Just about everybody would play at the park,” she added.
In the last few years,
though, not many children use the park anymore.
changed. There’s a not a lot of kids. They tore down the armory. It’s all
fenced off,” Garcia said.
The old armory, which for
years stood on the plot of land directly south of Heber Park, was razed some
years back but is part of the park’s expansion plan. It’s where the new gym
will be built and Sheridan Street separating the two lots will be closed.
Garcia said she hopes the
expansion will bring more people to the area, “liven it up. Hopefully that will
bring it back, so kids will play there again.”
Her own son played soccer
in the park, she said, explaining, “Dominic played in the park. We all grew up
being in that park. I’m going to see a beautiful project develop, and it’s
right across the street from us. I get to see it every day as it moves along.”
How Heber Got its Groove Back
Eager anticipation aside,
the redevelopment of Heber Park is going to take some time, Assistant City
Manager Miguel Figueroa indicated.
The city still needs to
get its official grant award letter from the state, execute a grant agreement
and get the funding, Figueroa stated in an email Feb. 27. Next, through a
competitive bid process, the city will select an architecture firm to develop
the project design, plans and specifications. Finally, the city must find a
construction firm, also through a bid process, and start construction.
What kind of timeline the
city is looking at was not immediately available.
Getting to this point was
its own journey, however. The effort included much public outreach from the
city, which staged various public hearings to gather community input about what
citizens wanted to see at Heber and other parks.
Although Heber Park was
the only grant application awarded, the city applied for funding for three
parks at the same time through the state Parks and Recreation Department’s
Proposition 68 grant program. The measure was approved by voters in 2018 to
provide $255 million in competitive grant funding.
As part of the process,
Dale said during a Feb. 27 interview applicants had to involve the community in
developing the projects and applications through community forums and hearings.
Several were held in early 2019. City Public Works manager Liliana Falomir was
instrumental in organizing the process and putting the applications together,
The city had also applied
for funding for Cordova Park and the Calexico Community Center. Surprisingly, Dale
said, the Heber project was approved even though it was the only application
that sought the maximum award amount of $8.5 million.
Efforts to Improve Other Parks, Master Plan
Although the city is
abuzz about Heber Park, it continues to plug away on Adrian Cordova Park in
stages and when it can afford to as it slowly returns to financial stability,
More than $1 million was
set aside for Cordova Park in 2014, after the city took out a $10 million bond for
several projects to be repaid through Measure H funding, a voter-approved
half-cent city sales tax.
In 2018, new playground
equipment was installed at the park near Clinton Avenue and Meadows Drive,
north of Highway 98 near the eastern edge of town. Currently there is a
walking/running trail, parking lot, benches and lighting,
Three Little League
baseball fields will be coming along shortly, Dale said.
Within the last few
months, the Imperial Irrigation District came out and graded the park, hauling
away 12,000 cubic yards of dirt for free.
“That was a boon to the
city,” Dale said. “They needed the dirt, and trucking it away cost too much for
Bids were due to the city
March 5 to install fencing for three baseball fields, Dale added, with a
summary of the bids to be presented to the council March 18.
Then, Dale said, the city
can install irrigation in-house and plant grass once the fencing is completed.
Meanwhile, Hodge said
during an interview Feb. 28 he wants the city to move forward on assessing the
state of all parks to develop a five-year plan. Though he conceded resources
are limited to work on parks, that’s no reason not to build a master list of tasks.
“I can’t think of
anything else that has more of a direct connection to the community and its
children than its parks,” Hodge said.
The city has one full-time
and six part-time parks maintenance workers. Hodge said there is some level of
work that needs to occur throughout the system.
For example, he said, the
restrooms are in poor condition at Rockwood Park, behind city hall, and Daniel
V. Gutierrez Community Soccer Field across the street from the Calexico Unified
School District offices on Andrade Avenue have some “flooding” issues the city
is working with IID to sort out.
Hodge wants to see a
master plan include a list of every park, its most immediate needs, funding
availability and a plan to maintain it at a high level.
“I’m very pleased about
the Heber Park project. What’s important is it’s going to raise the quality of
life for our city. It’s part of our mission,” he said.
But he added more needs
to be done.
“You want to know how a
community is, how it treats its citizens? Look at its parks,” Hodge said.