When asked about Soldotna’s Aspen Park, most city residents respond with a blank stare or a quizzical, “Aspen Park?”
The park — and it does exist — sits on a little more than two acres of land behind Jo-Ann Fabric, aptly situated off Aspen Drive. Garbage litters the overgrown shrubbery, and the wooden benches lining the ill-maintained trails are coated with a mossy grayish-green film.
Connie Hocker, a Soldotna resident of 30 years, is now one step closer to transforming the neglected Aspen Park into something the community can be proud of. After two years of planning, persistence, and navigating bureaucratic hoops, Hocker got the Soldotna City Council to designate half of the park as a fenced-in area for dogs to play off-leash.
The Soroptimist International of the Kenai Peninsula, a women-centric global volunteer service geared toward improving communities and a group of which Hocker counts herself a member, will design, finance, build, and help maintain the $60,000 dog park entirely through fundraising and volunteerism.
“That is exactly why I picked that park,” Hocker said of the community’s ignorance to Aspen Park’s existence. “Because I know it was something I could take that’s not positive in the community and turn it totally into a positive thing.
“Everybody I asked they said, ‘Oh, I don’t know where that’s at.’ This is a park we’re all paying for and that we’ve created.”
Hocker has big plans for the dog park, including a massive restoration and possible paving of the trails, re-stained benches and picnic tables, a water fountain that serves both dogs and humans alike, and a six-foot tall chain link fence enclosing the entire area.
She hopes that the trails can be paved so the handicapped and elderly can also have easy access.
The cost of everything has already been broken down: lighting ($4,500), parking and trails ($12,000), fencing ($18,000), signage ($2,000) and so on.
Several fundraisers have already been planned to begin raising money for the project. A memorial wall, for instance, will be constructed within the dog park, where people can pay to mount an engraved stone bearing the name of a deceased pet.
Dog bone-shaped tags will also be available for purchase, and will have an inscription on the back side boasting support for the Aspen Dog Park.
Tickets for a community “split the pot” raffle are also available at Wagging Tails Grooming, and Hocker said more businesses will soon start selling the tickets. Tickets will be available until Sept. 1.
Hocker, a dog owner and lover herself, has various reasons for spearheading the push for a local dog park. One of her main concerns is that when puppies grow up here in isolation and without the opportunity to play with other animals, they become aggressive; not necessarily toward humans, but toward other dogs.
“I think this dog park is kind of out-of-the-box for us here in Alaska, because we think we’ve got lots of places for these dogs to roam,” she said. “Well, we do, but half of them can’t be near other dogs. So if we can socialize them younger, then we’ll have big dogs that aren’t aggressive toward people, property, and other pets.”
Another benefit is to people who can’t own pets due to landlord restrictions.
“There are a lot of properties which don’t allow pets,” said Hocker, who, as a rental agent, knows this firsthand. “But for folks who love animals, there are benches where they can come and enjoy the pets without having to deal with the ownership.”
Hocker really wants to hammer home the point that this project is almost entirely driven by the commitment and work of volunteers and generous community members; the city will empty the trash bins, mow the grass, and provide the poop bags, but they do these things for all other city parks anyway.
She also wants to make it clear that the project will not take away from kids enjoying the playground equipment on the other side of the park. A new trail constructed from scratch will be built to circumvent the dog park and access the play area.
“We’re not taking away from anything,” Hocker said. “We’re not taking away from a children’s park. We’re going to be bringing a lot of attention to the park, cleaning it up, and creating something that we don’t have now.”
Andrew Carmichael, the director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, believes the park will see considerable use and will succeed in its goals.
“Community-driven projects like this are a great thing,” he said. “People are able to get what they want through fundraising efforts and it greatly enhances ownership of the areas.”
“Clearly the dog park is supported by the community,” added Mayor Peter Micciche. “And we are very pleased that the group is respecting the city’s policy of no net loss of trees and will keep trail access open to the existing facilities.”
When the city passed the resolution formally recognizing the dog park, they also set a deadline of August 2012 for its complete construction. Hocker, however, hopes to get most of it done by the beginning of this winter.
“I would like to leave something behind for the whole community that we can all be proud of,” she said.
“For the first time maybe people will know where Aspen Park is.”
A clean-up day is scheduled for July 16, where volunteers will cut, clean, and clear brush and debris in preparation for the work to begin on the trails and fencing. Anyone interested in participating with the clean-up or with the construction of the park in general should contact Hocker at 398-3001 or firstname.lastname@example.org.