Five years of effort is finally paying off for the John E. Wengert Memorial Park.
“The big piece of news recently was the awarding of the $400,000 from DCNR,” said John Wengert, who is the son of the park’s namesake and president of Lebanon Valley Rail to Trails Inc. “It’s definitely exciting. Luckily, everybody stuck with it.”
Lebanon County Commissioners last April approved a grant application for $600,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources toward development of the park. The $400,000 they will receive, Wengert said, “was a little short of what we applied for.”
DCNR Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn, in a letter dated Dec. 30, 2021, informed county commissioners of the grant amount.
The department, Dunn wrote in the letter, “is committed to building community conservation partnerships with local governments and nonprofit organizations to protect critical natural areas and open space, develop greenways and trails, provide quality park, recreation and conservation opportunities, and to improve the quality of life in Pennsylvania’s communities.”
The grant, Dunn added, “is a recognition of outstanding recreation and conservation work that should be shared with your community.”
The shortfall is disappointing but will not derail the project, Wengert promised. To make up the difference, he said, a new application has been made on behalf of the park for additional funds through the American Rescue Plan, a pot of federal money under state control for distribution to deserving nonprofits for worthy projects.
The application was made in January for about $200,000, Wengert said.
“I’m not sure what the timeline is for their decision-making, so we’ll have to see when that comes in,” he said. “Worse-case scenario is, we get none or some of that ask, and then we can proceed with a reduced scope. Or maybe we can do the park in phases. One way or another, we’re going to start the park this year.”
Additional funding sources
The county also applied in June for a shared easement between the city and county, which would allow the city access to a berm along the southern side of the flood channel for periodic repairs and maintenance. The park, located on the western edge of Lebanon City, was created in memory of John E. Wengert, a local dairy farmer and founding chair of the Lebanon Valley Conservancy.
The Lebanon Valley Conservancy is also asking DCNR for a grant totaling $650,000 to fund the planting of native trees to address climate change and pay for a garden of native plants that will provide a buffer to the Quittapahilla Creek, attract bees and butterflies and encourage local pollinators. A “traffic garden” in the park will be laid out like a miniature city for bicycle traffic and will include a barn and a silo honoring the Wengert family, Lebanon Valley Conservancy executive director Laurie Crawford told county commissioners last year.
A previous grant for another $400,000 came from the state Department of Community and Economic Development, and the project also got $250,000 in local matching funds, Wengert said. “We now have enough to get started,” he said.
The next step, he explained, “is detailed design work. We need detailed engineering drawings that can be sent out to bid. That would take place probably over the spring or early summer, so theoretically, we could see some activity by fall on park site development.”
He hesitated to predict exactly what the initial work would entail, but said they were eager to get a shovel in and make some progress on the park.
“That’s our goal, to get some earth moving and clear the site,” he said. “We want to start heading in the right direction. We’re pretty excited about that.”
A master plan was drawn up by York-based YSM Landscape Architects. Some of the improvements laid out in the plan include trailhead improvements, a parking area and park entry plaza, information kiosk, picnic pavilion, trails and fitness stations, native grass meadows, seating plazas, overlooks, and interpretive signs. Future phases could include an age-segregated playground, amphitheater, art, and improvements to the creek corridor.
Coupled with the rail trail
The park will also be an urban leg of the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail, which has been in the works for more than 20 years. Phase six, now underway, will stretch two miles, connecting Wengert Memorial Park with North Cornwall Township’s Glonninger Woods Park along the Chestnut Street corridor, then turning north across Route 422 and the Lebanon Valley Mall property to the Phase Seven trailhead.
Lebanon Valley Rail to Trails was incorporated in 1996, and the initial phase of the trail – Colebrook to Mount Gretna – was completed in 2000. When finished, the Lebanon Valley Rail Trail will traverse 32 miles of Lebanon County’s rural and urban scenic beauty, connecting Lancaster and Schuylkill counties and providing access to other trails in Lebanon, Lancaster, and Schuylkill counties.
Working on the rail trail at the same time as the park improvements would provide “some economy in scale, such as stormwater and other improvements that would benefit both projects,” Wengert said.
“It’s pretty exciting after five years of effort,” he added, referring to the park. “We were unsuccessful in getting some grants, but things are finally coming together.”
Initial work will likely include improvements to the land contour, along with construction of retaining walls and a stormwater retention basin.
If all goes well, Wengert said, “we could be finishing by the summer of 2023. I certainly hope so.”
The project has been a collaboration of the Lebanon Valley Rail to Trails Inc., Lebanon Valley Conservancy, Lebanon County Commissioners and the Lebanon City Authority, he said. “We’ve got great partners. Everybody has been patient and persevered.”
Once completed, he added, they hope to form a Friends group to help with park maintenance.
“The park is coming at a very opportune time, due to the pandemic,” Wengert said. “I think one of the reasons we were successful in getting this funding is, this is a close-to-home recreational outlet for the people of Lebanon. That’s very important due to the pandemic, when staying close to home for recreation has become very important.
“I feel pretty good about it.”
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