Schenectady's Central Park, the city's crown jewel for more than a century, needs some polishing these days.
The 250-acre park was created in 1914 by community leaders to improve the quality of life for the city's booming population. Along with its baseball and softball fields, hiking trails, playground, swimming pool and live performance venue, Central Park was particularly noteworthy because of its tennis facility, once the envy of every other municipality in upstate New York.
All those amenities still exist in the park, but maintaining them requires a lot of effort and cost, and many are showing their age. The tennis courts, once a world-class venue that hosted the OTB International Open and World Team Tennis, are in need of some tender loving care. The Central Park A Diamond, also known as Buck Ewing Field, lies unused and neglected, and the Agnes Macdonald Music Haven Stage, scheduled for major improvements this spring, will now wait until the completion of this summer season for its renovation work, which includes 400 new stadium-quality seats.
Jeremy Howard, the city's Director of Property Management, which oversees Central Park and the city's other 24 parks, concedes the park is currently not at its best, but he's confident that will change.
"We're in the day and age where we're doing more with less, but we do the best we can every day," said Howard, a Schenectady native who went to Christian Brothers Academy in Albany and has worked at the city for 11 years, the last two in his current position. "Central Park is a gem, we have a great park system, and we're working hard to keep it that way. We have a lot going on, and step by step we're going to bring that good feel back to Central Park."
The city and Mayor Gary McCarthy announced in July of 2016 a $1.3 million grant to be divided among the tennis facility, the Music Haven Stage and the A Diamond. While the music venue and baseball field remain unchanged, work did begin on the tennis courts. Ten of the venue's 17 courts have been resurfaced, and according to City Engineer Chris Wallin, Copeland Coating Company of Nassau will finish the work later this summer. The park's Stadium Court hasn't been used since Schenectady's WTT franchise left Central Park in 2008.
"The remaining or 'old' tennis courts in Central Park are going to be cleaned and recoated within the next month," Wallin wrote in an email to the Gazette. "That should close out that project. There are no long-range plans for the Stadium Court but we have had some interest regarding using it for summer camps or summer events. The city will be hiring a consultant to evaluate the condition of the facility before re-using it as it has not been used for quite a while and we need to ensure it is to code."
Wallin also addressed the issues relating to the Music Haven and the A Diamond.
"The improvements to the Music Haven and the A Diamond were pushed off until after the Music Haven Concert Series," he said. "If we did the work prior to the Music Haven Series it would have to be relocated for this year as we could not allow people on the sod. So we are now beginning the project directly after the last concert of the season in August. That way the sod will have the fall, winter and spring to establish itself."
Mona Golub, producing artistic director for the Music Haven Concert Series, said her group's House & Hill Campaign, launched last July to raise money and supplement the grant for the Music Haven, continues to attract donors. Part of the campaign is a brick or block purchase, which allows donors to personalize the item and have it placed either in the "Wall of Support," a chair or the facade of the stage. This summer's season begins on July 9.
"The bricks that have been dedicated are being engraved and they should be ready for our summer social on Aug. 6," said Golub, declining to comment on the delay.
While the Music Haven venue, with or without the enhancements, remains one of the best features of the park, the work on the tennis courts has put a damper on the facility's aesthetic quality. Much of the ground surrounding the courts has been disturbed, leaving dirt where there was once grass. Also, the venue's drinking fountain, dedicated to the memory of Nancy Haffner, who played at Central Park for years, is broken, and at various places around the edges of the courts there are chunks of unused concrete. Howard said those problems will be addressed.
"We're working on getting the rest of the courts finished, and when we do we're going to start to clean up the perimeter and remove all the debris," said Howard, who added that a new tennis shed, with bathrooms, should be constructed early in the fall. "We're going to freshen the place up."
"We have a lot of moving parts, different components, and we're working one step at a time," said Mayor McCarthy. "We've put a lot of money into the courts and the entire park, and we're going to continue to invest in the place. I'm not sure of the exact time line, but we are working hard."
Once the home of both the Section II Boys and Girls Tennis Tournament, Central Park last hosted the boys and girls competitions in 2015.
Keeping a close eye on the work from White Plains is Julia Bliss Beal, a 1996 Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake grad and a 2000 University at Albany alum. Beal is the senior director of competitive tennis for the United States Tennis Association's Eastern Section, which uses Central Park for a number of its events.
"We had three events up there in June and we have three more in August and two in September, so we're very excited about the work," said Beal. "It was disappointing that there were only 10 courts that we could use in June. We had to use the courts on Michigan Avenue and we also used the courts at Shenendehowa, but it's such a wonderful facility and we really do need all 17 courts."
Bliss said she grew up going to Central Park and watching the OTB Open.
"As kids we watched some great tennis players for free," she said. "It was a great event and a great facility. It brings back so many great memories for me, but now we're sitting here in White Plains, looking at each other, hoping the place will be ready. We have hotel contracts signed, we have food vendors signed up. We love the place, but we need all 17 courts so we need them to button up and get the work done."