Photographs by Mark Harrison Seattle Times staff photographer Agrowing, shifting population has Snohomish County focusing more on activity-based...

Agrowing, shifting population has Snohomish County focusing more on activity-based parks for the near future, a change from the county’s previous emphasis on purchasing natural areas with fewer recreation opportunities.

That doesn’t mean the purchase of property for trail use isn’t part of the picture, says new parks director Tom Teigen. Instead, it’s more of a balance between active and passive uses.

For the past 10 to 20 years, Snohomish County has focused on purchasing property that could later be turned into community and regional parks. Many of those purchases were made in areas where the population wasn’t large but was expected to grow.

Now that the growth is here — and continuing — and residents are spread farther from the county’s urban areas, officials say it’s time to develop some of the property that in some cases has sat idle for nearly 40 years.

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Residents now say they want multiuse parks with lots of different amenities, and the county aims to give them what they want.

With money tight, county officials say, the parks department also needs to be more creative in finding funding sources. Teigen, hired by the county in January to replace retired parks director Gary Weikel, says he is looking for new partnerships with city parks departments and is considering how private-public partnerships might speed up the construction of park amenities such as new ballfields or off-leash dog areas.

Corporate thinking

The philosophy of the parks department is this: Build new parks, build new users and build more partnerships, mainly to generate more revenue.

It’s a corporate approach applied to the outdoors, Teigen acknowledges, and he has the background to show it works. Teigen came to the Snohomish County Parks and Recreation Department from King County, where he worked as section manager of business-plan implementation for the King County parks.

He’s partly responsible for improvements at Redmond’s Marymoor Park, which included an amphitheater for summer shows and a dog park run by a nonprofit. He also helped persuade Group Health to buy the naming right to Marymoor’s velodrome and talked Starbucks into paying for informational kiosks along trails.

“I remember Tom coming to speak with us about two years ago,” said Marc Krandel, parks-planning supervisor for Snohomish County. “And then he was talking about building equity in parks to raise revenues.”

This is different from how the parks department considered projects in the past, Krandel said, but the change is mostly due to increased population and the closer proximity of new neighborhoods to county parks.

There’s more demand for ballfields and playgrounds than there was 20 years ago, when residents lived farther from county parks and looked on the system as a network of passive parks, much like the large tracts purchased by the state Department of Natural Resources for hiking.

“That change in population has led to a shift in ideas,” Krandel said. “People want more active-use parks than the county currently has.”

With more than 650,000 residents now living in the county, the corporate angle has become worth considering. Ballfields and water-spray parks led themselves to the private-public partnerships that Snohomish County is beginning to explore.

If a nonprofit, such as one being formed now called Sno-Dog, wants to help operate an off-leash park or two, that adds to recreation without new operating costs for the county. Talks are under way, and the county is looking at various sites for such a facility. There are no off-leash dog parks now in the county system.

Small-scale efforts

Snohomish County also has tried to jump-start smaller projects through its Community Infrastructure Development Initiative (CIDI). Introduced last year by County Executive Aaron Reardon and passed by the County Council, CIDI uses bond money to pay for projects as far as 10 years out.

In addition to street and surface-water improvements, the 2006 CIDI list included 15 parks projects, each less than $400,000, with many to be completed this year.

“The CIDI projects was a chance to look at what we could do right away,” Teigen said. “They’re not expensive to build, and they get families out there. That was the big push.”

Among the projects are several playground upgrades and improvements at places such as Logan Community Park, Paine Field Community Park, Meadowdale Community Park and Kayak Point Regional Park.

Others include baseball- and soccer-field projects at Lake Stevens Community Park, Forsgren Community Park and Esperance Community Park.

A water-spray park is being added at McCollum Regional Park. The most expensive project on the CIDI parks list, at $350,000, is the Reiter Pit off-road-vehicle trailhead east of Gold Bar. The trailhead should be ready next year.

“It’s important to say that the executive and council have been very supportive,” Teigen said. “They’ve allowed us to continue on with the big plans, but to get some smaller pieces under way.”

For Councilman Kirke Sievers, it’s a matter of what the constituents want their parks to offer and that projects stay on a timely course.

“We’ve always looked favorably on acquisitions, but now it’s important to see a timetable as to when the park amenity is going to open and what that cost is going to be,” Sievers said. “From my interaction with new homeowners, a lot of them come from cities with mini-parks, such as a swing set or two, and they want something bigger and better up here.”

Bigger projects ahead

Not everything can be completed in a matter of months, so a long-term master plan for parks helps guide the department on what to do next. Many larger, regional parks are in the pipeline, with at least three under evaluation now.

“Historically, regional parks are developed over a four- to eight-year timeline,” Teigen said, because they require a longer permitting process and more money, usually tens of millions of dollars.

One is the Evergreen Fairgrounds, visited by more than a million people annually and which annually brings in several million dollars in revenue to the county’s coffers. It has an overall economic impact near $25 million a year.

Few major renovations have been made at the fairgrounds in the past 20 years or so, and many of those that were, such as improved paving and infrastructure, have been paid for by private groups that use the fairgrounds regularly for events.

Groups are calling for a new exhibit hall. County officials are considering a 60,000-square-foot building and are looking at improvements to the racetrack, which is used almost year-round.

“There’s a good business case for making the improvements, based on the revenue the fairgrounds generates,” Teigen said. “A few upgrades can improve that.”

Then there’s property the county has held for years without plans for improvements. Two tracts up for discussion this year are Cavalero Hill near Lake Stevens and the Pelz property near Marysville.

Now that it’s surrounded by neighborhoods, 40-acre Cavalero Hill is a perfect site for multi-use amenities, including ballfields, officials say. Project designs are under way.

Near north Marysville, an 80-acre property donated to the county by the Pelz family in the early 1970s finally will get consideration. The long delay ended when the county recently gained road access to the site.

It, too, has potential for a variety of uses, including fields, trails, playgrounds and more.

Beyond walking trails

“What we want to make certain is that we can build on the land that the county has purchased, and maximize the use of the parks,” County Executive Reardon said. “That means providing opportunities to different age groups and demographics.”

At this point, almost every county resident lives within four miles of a county park or county-owned land that someday could be a park.

“Traditionally, we’re known for a passive park system, but people don’t just want walking trails anymore,” Reardon said. “They want equipment, entertainment, an active lifestyle.”

Willis D. Tucker Community Park in Snohomish, named after the county’s first executive, is perhaps the best example. The 84-acre site includes walking trails, playgrounds, baseball fields and a community activity center that hosts various classes and meetings all year.

Coming this year to the park is an amphitheater and eventually an off-leash dog park.

“We’re continually looking to the communities for their input in what to add to our parks,” Sievers said, noting that was the county’s approach to Willis D. Tucker Community Park. “And I don’t think you can get a better park than that.”

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com