What’s next for the stalled Wissahickon treetop proposal?

Earlier this month, members of the Alliance for the Preservation of the Wissahickon (APOW), a group that emerged in April to oppose a possible treetop adventure course in Wissahickon Valley Park, were not sure what to make of a statement from Parks and Rec “deferring public action and discussion” on the course.

According to APOW steering committee member Denise Cotter, the group is not ready to comment publicly on their next steps as they seek to “clarify” what the Parks and Rec statement means for the proposed course site at Wigard and Henry avenues.

Opposition continues

Meanwhile, Cotter and her fellow activists have continued to rally opposition, with about 1,400 paper petition signatures as of last week, and the official support of 4th District Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. According to a May 8th post on the group’s blog, “it did not take much convincing” for the Councilman, who added his name to the petition because of worries about the impact the course would have on nesting birds, as well as potential damage to a “beautiful, pristine area.”

Word from Parks and Recreation

But despite increasingly visible neighborhood opposition, as well as a reversal of early tentative support from the Friends of the Wissahickon, Park Concessions Manager Marc Wilken told NewsWorks last week that there was “no real catalyst” for the latest Parks and Rec statement.

“We’re just kind of regrouping right now, taking it all in and seeing what the next steps are,” he added, explaining that the pause in public engagement was a natural move in the process of examining the information Parks and Rec has received from all quarters regarding the project.

But Wilken did discuss combating what the statement called “the volume of misinformation currently in circulation.”

“What’s challenging is folks who claim there’s a great impact on the site, [when they] haven’t even seen the project in action, and don’t have anything to back it up with,” he said of fears that a carefully stewarded course would damage the park’s ecosystem.

The zip-line problem

Parks and Rec is also finding it difficult to overcome what Wilken called the “buzzword” of the opposition: “zip-line.”

He stressed that the zip-line piece of the proposed concession “is maybe five to ten minutes of the entire course experience,” which could take up to a few hours in total: “it’s certainly not the point of the experience,” which involves high-altitude obstacle courses requiring strength and focus.

Wilken had no comment on a recently circulated Schuylkill Project idea to install a zip-line across the river from Manayunk to Lower Merion, but added that thinking creatively about recreation in the parks is a good thing: “when people think about this project…[they] get excited about it, with good reason.”

Where is the money going?

Wilken said other pieces of misinformation involve financial concerns about course revenue.

While Parks and Rec officials can’t give any exact numbers on how much money a Wissahickon treetop adventure could generate for the city, the current estimate is about $50,000 per year – but Wilken said that there has been some confusion about this figure, as some don’t realize that it is an estimated annual sum instead of a one-time payment.

“People say $50,000, but they don’t add more context to it,” he explained. “It’s not $50,000 for a year, it’s $500,000 for ten years.”

He said that while this was explained at a community information session held in late March at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education, people may have been confused because “we didn’t put anything in writing.”

Wilken also addressed another fear enumerated to NewsWorks by both APOW members and Friends of Pennypack Park president Linde Lauff.

Many of those opposed to the course worry that revenue from the concession would be directed to the City’s general fund, with no guarantee that park lands would benefit from the money, but Wilkin said these worries are groundless.

He pointed to a 2011 city ordinance creating the “Parks and Recreation Programs and Facilities Fund,” which stipulates that revenue from “competitively awarded agreements” – including treetop adventure operators – can be directly used for expenses related to Fairmount Park System programs and facilities.

According to Wilken, that adds up to “a guarantee” that any money from this concession would go back to the park: “we have a mechanism to retain the funds and reinvest them into the Wissahickon through that ordinance.”

Both sides move forward

Wilken said that Parks and Rec wants to be “as transparent as possible” in the consideration process, and directed those who want to know more to a new site explaining the proposed course.

“We’ve got plenty of information from the public, both pro and con, and then we evaluate it, [and] re-assess where we go from there,” he added.

For her part, Cotter vowed that her group will remain active. “Just as [APOW] came together for the purpose of opposition to the [course]…the people who are on the steering committee are really interested in remaining a presence and seeing what we can do to preserve the park in the future.”

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