By Joe Pinchot
Herald Staff Writer
It is a cold afternoon and Kate Whalen is bundled up.
Her dog, Bella, is raring to go for a walk, and Whalen takes her to Buhl Farm park in Hermitage just about every day.
“I love it,” Whalen, of Sharpsville, said of the park. “We run here. I walk the dog here.”
She brings her two children to the park for the summer program, and they ride sleds in the winter.
“I taught my kids to walk in this park,” she said.
As she walks around the park, Whalen has no indication that park officials are looking at their accounting books with a growing sense of worry.
When told that the park’s finances are no longer solid, Whalen’s jaw suddenly loses its muscle tone.
“Oh, no,” she said. “That’s bad.”
In her next breath, Whalen takes the offensive.
“How do we fix it?” she said. “What can we do?”
Park officials hope there are many more people like Whalen in the community who are ready to do what they can to help.
• • •
When founder Frank Buhl set up a trust for the park, he limited the investment options of the park trustees to fixed income vehicles, such as bonds, said Stephen Gurgovits, president of the trustees.
Trustees have access only to the interest the investments generate to operate the park, and state law further limits the amount of interest that can be used to 7 percent. Past officials paid for capital expenses, such as road paving, from that 7 percent.
“We missed the run up of the stock market,” Gurgovits said.
Park officials received court permission to add stocks to their investment portfolio in 1991, and the endowment now stands at $8.25 million.
The endowment generates about $500,000 a year for operations. The problem is that it takes about $1 million a year to run the park. Officials have been able to rely on donations to close the gap.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to get contributions,” Gurgovits said.
“Consistent benefactors are dying off,” said Phil Marrie, president of the Buhl Park Corp., which runs the park for the trust.
Gurgovits called raising the endowment to $30 million the “ultimate solution” to the park’s financial problems.
But, until it reaches that level, what do park officials do? They are facing “operations changes” until the endowment is built up.
“There’s going to be community reaction to that,” Gurgovits said. “None of these options are desirable.”
The only decision they have thus far made is to not reopen the driving range, which was closed last year so the silt scooped out of Lake Julia could be dumped on it.
“It never made money,” Marrie said of the driving range.
Other choices are not so obvious.
Many activity costs are covered by sponsorships and fees, and really amount to little in terms of the overall budget, Marrie said.
Speaking of the playschool program, which has been at the park for more than 70 years, he said, “We can charge more, but it’s going to get clobbered. Families who use it have two working parents.”
Officials have worked to cut costs over the years by hiring part-time workers whenever a full-time employee retires, and paying minimum wage salaries for many jobs.
The park has minimal employee hospitalization costs because most employees have heath care through their spouses or Medicare.
It takes $150,000 to maintain the Buhl Farm Golf Course, a free, public nine-hole course. Golfers played 10,000 rounds on the course last year.
“You can’t not mow the grass,” Marrie said of the golf course, and charging greens fees would put it in competition with all the other golf courses in the area.
The security staff – all of whom are minimum-wage and none of whom get health care from the park – costs the park $100,000 a year.
Gurgovits said he believes people feel safe in the park and officials said they doubt that municipal police forces could devote the time to the park that rangers do now.
“People love the concerts in the summer. You can’t have concerts if you don’t have some kind of security,” Marrie said.
Other major expenses are administration, $270,000, and maintenance, $370,000.
Gurgovits argued that the park is in the best condition it has ever been.
“People who come to the park think there is no problem,” he said.
Marrie noted that usage of the swimming pool, which is managed by the Buhl Community Recreation Center, Sharon, is down, and officials have not decided what to do about a broken pump, which would cost $6,500 to replace.
• • •
Ericka McCracken of South Pymatuning Township comes to the park just about every day for walks and to watch the ducks, geese and swans.
McCracken has a professional interest in the park – she’s a dog walker – as well as a personal one.
“It’s a lifeline for me in the winter,” she said. “The regular roads, it’s hard to walk dogs with snow on the ground. Here, they’re free and there are lots of squirrels.”
When told that cuts could be in the offing, McCracken said she is “surprised and disappointed.”
“I understand that times are hard all over,” she said. “I certainly would be willing to do my share with fundraising. This is such a wonderful place. We’re very blessed to have it.”
• • •
Park officials have worked to increase activities, such as recent annual events like Get Outdoors Day and Winter Fest, and would rather talk about building partnerships and continuing to expand offerings than the need for money.
The Shenango River Watchers sponsors an annual environmental education day in the park with students from Sharon and Farrell schools, and the group, which has its office in the park, would like to hold some sort of monthly event, said Thomas W. Kuster, general counselor and adviser to the park.
Officials soon will allow kayaking on Lake Julia, and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission will hold an early trout fishing program for kids.
The annual summer series of concerts continues to be well-attended, and officials want more shows at the performing arts center.
Park officials last made a community appeal for funds in 2005 when they held a capital campaign. The community delivered, donating $5.2 million to renovate the Casino, build a pool house, refurbish the bridge over Lake Julia, dredge the lake and perform other work.
“The community really supported us, because people think of it as their park,” Gurgovits said.
Raising the endowment from $8.25 million to $30 million is an obtainable goal, he said.
“The question is, how long is it going to take?”
Marrie added he’s not positive officials can raise $500,000 a year until the endowment is beefed up.
But, officials said, they want the community to have the opportunity to help, before they start cutting programs or services.
“This is a heads up,” Gurgovits said. “If changes come, I don’t want to blindside people. I think it’s really the number one amenity in this community.”
• • •
Kate Whalen hopes people take this opportunity.
“The community needs to come together. It’s part of our community,” she said of the park. “People are always here, every part of the day. We should all help to keep it going.”
Erica McCracken agrees.
“The community loves this park so much,” she said. “I hope there will be an outpouring of support.”