Los Banos could see Pacheco Park transformed from run-down to beautiful once again

Dry spots appear in the lawn at Pacheco Park, the cause being a worn-out irrigation system.
Dry spots appear in the lawn at Pacheco Park, the cause being a worn-out irrigation system. Special to the Enterprise

What comes to mind when someone mentions “Pacheco Park”?

For old-timers, either longtime residents of Los Banos or people who drove through Los Banos years ago, it usually brings back pleasant memories. This city park — known to all locals as Pacheco Park, but identified on a park sign as “Merced County, Los Banos Park” — used to be a landmark destination, for both Los Banosans and travelers, an inviting place filled with tall shade trees and picnic tables.

For people who have moved here recently, however, words they associate with this park, located on Pacheco Boulevard and 7th Street, include run-down, unsafe and unpleasant — an uninviting place with few healthy trees and splotchy grass.

John Spevak New Photo
John Spevak, columnist for the Enterprise. Enterprise file

For Joe Heim, who has been the Los Banos Parks and Recreation manager for less than a year, Pacheco Park suggests an opportunity to revitalize and renew the park through a state grant for which the city is now applying, with an application deadline of Aug. 5.

The grant is funded through the State Parks system with revenue from Proposition 68, passed last year by California voters. It is a significant opportunity for cities in California because they can apply for as much as $8.5 million to build or renovate a park. Pacheco Park qualifies as one that could be renovated with this grant.

I’m glad Pacheco Park qualifies. It has extensive history and numerous memories for many people. It’s not only adjacent to Loftin Stadium, home for decades to many football games and track meets, but also next to the old (and now defunct) city swimming pool and the still vibrant public library, Milliken history museum and Scout Hut.

(By the way the grant is not large enough to fund a building of a new city pool, which will need to wait for another funding opportunity.)

For several weeks now the city, through the leadership of Public Works Director Mark Fachin, with Heim as the main facilitator, has held numerous public meetings to get comments from city residents on what they would like to see in a renovated park. Joe has also passed out printed surveys, which many community residents have filled out and completed.

In the grant application, the library, museum and Scout Hut would remain untouched, but the park could have features that complement these buildings.

I realize that applying for the grant does not mean our city would get it. Los Banos is in competition with many other cities in the state. However, the overall grant amount ($255 million) is large enough that many cities will receive grant money, so there’s genuine hope for Los Banos.

I’ve been to two of the city’s public meetings on the grant application, and I’m excited about the possibilities. Heim has provided intelligence, leadership and enthusiasm to the process, which has spurred brainstorming and imagination.

Many of the ideas talked about in these meetings sound especially appealing. One example is a “reading garden,” into which the back door of the library would open.

Another example would be a kind of arboretum, where a large number and variety of trees would be planted and identified throughout the park, trees especially suited to Los Banos’s climate and soil.

Several persons have perceptively suggested that the park could reflect and explain the city’s history, a concept that dovetails nicely with the park’s Milliken Museum. And I like the suggestion to design a park feature to honor veterans.

Several people have pointed out the need for three important infrastructure elements that the grant could pay for: irrigation, lighting and parking.

The current irrigation system is old and worn out, one of the reasons why the grass looks so bad in spots. An improved water-efficient system would help not only the lawn but newly planted trees and shrubs as well.

Lighting is also an important park element, especially for safety. Currently the park is not well-lit at night, sadly creating opportunities for people who now vandalize or litter it. Parks that are well lit, and used by many people at many different times, tend to be safe.

Another idea would increase parking (long a problem with the park), including a lot near the Milliken Museum, an area which is now dirt and dead grass.

Other viable possibilities for this grant include courts for sports like pickleball and basketball, playgrounds for young children and a splash pad (a cooling water feature for kids).

As Heim said, “This is really an important project to us. Renovation at such a thoroughly significant level would be transformational for Los Banos.”

I don’t want to get my expectations too high for this grant. But I’m cautiously optimistic the city could get it. I think Joe and the city will submit a persuasive grant with many components and features to make it highly competitive.

The city will know whether it has been awarded a grant by next January, and, if our community receives it, renovation would start almost immediately.

I really hope we get it.

John Spevak wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. His email is john.spevak@gmail.com.