Political poker over a royal flush

Staff photo by Adam Stewart

This site, which might be $15,000 cheaper to develop, is one possible location for a new set of restrooms at Central Park.

In Congress, ultra-conservatives are battling ultra-liberals. In Marion, emotions and battle lines are just as strong, but the issue is where to locate needed restrooms in Central Park.

On one side are administrator Doug Kjellin and current and former council members Todd Heitschmidt and Gene Winkler, both wanting to put new concrete restrooms up front and quite visible, near the main fountain in the park.

On the other is a grassroots movement of citizens concerned about — well, grass. And trees. And natural beauty. They fear a front-of-the-park location will damage the natural beauty of what for more than a century and a half has been Marion’s centerpiece. And they’ve been vocal about it. More than 25 of them have taken time to contact Planning and Zoning Commission members, urging them to reject the location Kjellin, Winkler, and Heitschmidt want.

Even after Winkler took to the stump Tuesday, explaining his side of the issue at a Kiwanis Club meeting, Kiwanians came down firmly straddling the fence, voting to favor the location Kjellin, Winkler, and Heitschmidt want — provided it can be done without hindering the park’s appearance. In political circles, that’s like coming out foursquare for cutting spending and cutting taxes at the same time.

After the meeting, I walked to the park to take a closer look. What I found was very little room west of the fountain where restrooms could be built. Putting them there would seem to allow no space between the restrooms (needed, but not exactly beautiful) and the park’s iconic fountain.

There does appear to be room north of the fountain, but that would trade Main Street’s view of the fountain for a view of a restroom — an exchange citizens should not be willing to make. It also would put the restrooms right next to and somewhat obscuring a memorial flagpole, in space normally used, because of its prominence, for the city’s nativity scene.

Heitschmidt and others have claimed that this location would be good because it would be accessible to people passing through town. I don’t see that as an advantage. Do we really want itinerate semi drivers stopping their big rigs along the downtown bridge so they can relieve themselves in our shiny new toilets, a few feet from where residents’ kids or grandkids are playing?

The only convincing argument I’ve heard for a northwest location is Winkler’s assertion that putting the restrooms toward the rear of the park might cost $12,000 more because other sites are lower than Main Street and would require a sewer lift station. When I walked to the park, I saw that nowhere is the park above the road level and only a very small area near the fountain is level with the street.

Saving a few dollars isn’t a bad idea but not if it creates an eyesore. Good as the restrooms might look, they would be no match for grass, trees, flowers, fountains and flags.

Before a gazebo was built in the middle of the park, restrooms always were in the back, where they didn’t interfere with the park’s beauty. Now that several citizens have expressed willingness to contribute to the project provided it is tucked away, out of sight in the rear, short-term financial considerations shouldn’t overwhelm the preservation of the community’s natural beauty and heritage.

Meanwhile, if downtown businessmen like Heitschmidt and Winkler want passersby to have easy access to restrooms from Main Street, we suggest they remodel their offices to put restrooms in the front lobby. Why ask the city to do with its park what no sensible businessman would do with his office?

— ADAM STEWART

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