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One park or two?

The 10-year dream of a park in a working-class west Medford neighborhood has shifted over time, and the latest idea to build it solely on Salvation Army property has some residents worried and frustrated.

"That's not what the community wanted at all," said Joy Pelikan, a resident of the neighborhood and a former Medford Urban Renewal Agency board member. "We didn't want a church thing. We wanted a community park. I can't tell you how emotionally disappointing this is."

Pelikan said she doesn't mind the religious organization building its own park on its own dime.

But after all the city's promises about building a park in the neighborhood, she thinks the community deserves one that belongs entirely to the public and isn't affiliated with a religious organization.

The Parks and Recreation Commission will hold a study session on the idea of the city building a park on Salvation Army property. The meeting will be held at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 7, at Santo Community Center, 701 N. Columbus Ave., Medford.

Under a previous proposal before the city, two parks would have been created in the Liberty Park neighborhood — one on Lithia Corp. land and one on Salvation Army property.

A park must be built for the Liberty Park neighborhood before Lithia completes its four-story headquarters by 2013 on Riverside Avenue to fulfill an agreement with the urban renewal agency. Lithia is supposed to invest up to $500,000 for the park, an amount that would have included two lots Lithia owns at Maple and Bartlett.

Brian Sjothun, director of the Medford Parks and Recreation Department, confirmed that the city is exploring having only one park — on the Salvation Army property, but not at the other site.

The Salvation Army property is bounded by Alice, Edwards, Niantic and Beatty streets. The Liberty Park neighborhood is roughly bounded by North Riverside Avenue, North Central Avenue, East Jackson Street and just north of Manzanita Avenue.

The original proposal called for a park at Maple and Bartlett streets at the southern end of the neighborhood.

Sjothun said discussions with local residents indicated that the Lithia property wouldn't provide enough space for all the amenities requested.

"It's not centrally located," Sjothun said. "We've always sought a partnership with the Salvation Army on the property."

Sjothun said the new proposal will be part of the discussion at the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting. He declined to comment on the rationale behind dropping the idea of having two parks.

A concept discussed last year was to create a small park for young children at Maple and Bartlett, then to build another park at the Salvation Army property.

The city and the Salvation Army have had preliminary discussions about a lease agreement that would ensure the park remains open to the public, he said.

Jerry MacLeod, chairman of the Parks and Recreation Commission, said he has heard some talk about creating just one park at the Salvation Army site, but he said the idea hasn't come before the commission.

"The feeling I have with other commission members is the other park is still in play," he said.

MacLeod said he has found Capt. Martin Cooper, who is in charge of the local Salvation Army, to be very approachable and easy to work with. But he said that hasn't always been the case with other captains, and he expressed concern about relations with future captains.

MacLeod said the commission has assumed that $500,000 is enough to build two parks.

Cooper of the Salvation Army said discussions with the community indicated the Lithia property doesn't have enough space to provide all the features local residents want.

He said the city and his organization have been negotiating a lease that would ensure complete public access to the park.

The length of the lease is still being worked out, but Cooper said it could range from 15 to 25 years and be for about $1 a year.

A site plan hasn't been fully developed, but the park would offer either a full or half-sized basketball court that would be covered, he said. A soccer field, picnic area, community garden, playground and bathrooms would be included in the design, Cooper said.

A small house on the Salvation Army lot has been torn down to make room for the new park.

The park would not be locked up at night, Cooper said, though a community garden would be. He said most of the vegetables would be given to the community, though some would be used in the organization's kitchen.

Cooper said the park and the kitchen are part of a greater effort to reach out to the community during tough economic times.

Cooper said the Salvation Army also will offer two meals a week to the community. The church will feature an industrial kitchen in the basement that will be open sometime in March.

He said the Salvation Army nationally offered meals to 1 million people a month four years ago. Two years ago, that number jumped to 2 million a month, and now the number has hit 3 million a month.

"That shows how bad the economy has become," he said.

Former City Councilman John Statler, who lives in the neighborhood and has been critical of the city's protracted efforts to build the park, said the Salvation Army property makes more sense than the other proposal.

"It's in the center of the community," he said. "It's what I want."

He said the idea appeals to him as long as the city can ensure the church keeps the property open to the public.

Other neighbors expressed surprise that a park might be built in their neighborhood.

Rodolfo Rangel, who lives across the street from the Salvation Army, said he would like to have the park for his three children because he currently has to drive them to a north Medford park.

"It might be a good idea," said the 39-year-old father.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

The Salvation Army is remodeling its church in West Medford. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch