Area residents gathered at McNamara Park on Thursday afternoon for a city presentation on the major $2.6 million renovation planned for the South Merced recreation area.
For decades, the 8.7-acre park and swimming pool served as one of the neighborhood's central amenities, drawing people from all over the city. "It was well-maintained," said South Merced resident Tamara Cobb. "I remember going there as a kid every day."
Councilman Bill Blake said he remembers as a youth being one of many residents that used the park. "The park has been used since the late '40s," he said. "It was one of the primary draws for recreation for Merced."
In recent years, however, McNamara Park became known less for its prominent history and more as a place that attracted boozy vagrants and dope-smoking teenagers and for a generally unkempt atmosphere.
"It was nothing like what I'm seeing today," Cobb said. "The aesthetics are not pleasing."
South Merced resident Robby Huddleston, who also grew up using the park, agreed. "It just took a downfall. Everything's changed. It's not as safe as it used to be."
Now, city officials and neighborhood residents hope all that could change.
"I remember playing baseball there as a kid. It was a lively place," said Councilman Mike Murphy. "Unfortunately, over the years, the city hasn't had the dollars to give it a real face lift. But now we have that opportunity."
After the city secured grant funding for the park renovations several years ago, neighborhood residents began pressuring officials to reinvest in the park's pool, which had fallen into disrepair and closed due to budget cuts.
The city responded, securing $70,000 in city money and private donations for the renovation project. The pool reopened last summer to considerable fanfare.
With the pool upgraded and renovations in the works, many see the park as poised to become again one of the city's most prominent locations for recreation.
"I've seen the plan. It's beautiful," Huddleston said. "I think it would be great for the kids that are growing up now."
Renovations planned for the park include converting a softball field into two gated soccer fields with brand-new artificial turf, and creating another natural grass all-purpose field.
The idea to turn the softball fields into soccer fields came from input from area residents, said city spokesman Mike Conway.
"We had four to five community meetings and that was the genesis," he said. "There's been a pressing need for soccer fields. That's been the No. 1 cry."
Playground equipment and basketball courts will be upgraded. A covered entertainment pavilion and a water feature for children to play in will be added.
Additionally, city officials plan to replace the bathrooms with modern, 10-stall restrooms, and upgrade the irrigation system. Safety measures will be updated with new fences and the installation of security cameras.
"The people of South Merced will utilize the heck out of it, but it will also draw the entire city over there," Blake said. "I think it's really going to be beautiful. I'm anxious to see it."
North Merced resident Travis Noyes said he started using the park after his son joined a soccer league there about a year ago.
"It's going to be great for this neighborhood," he said. "If they can get this place cleaned up, it will bring a lot more families in here."
The city plans to begin construction late this summer and have the park's overhaul completed by the end of the year. The project is scheduled to go out to bid in June.