Surprise hopes to be more of a park place

Growth brings need for recreation space throughout city

Posted 1/23/20

Surprise’s growth over the last 20 years has transformed the city. But it’s also made it become a victim of its own success.


Some cities grow fast and some outgrow …

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Surprise hopes to be more of a park place

Growth brings need for recreation space throughout city

Mark Coronado Park in the City Center is one gathering spot for Surprise residents for events like the Fourth of July fireworks celebration. The city is aching for more parks and open space, however, as the city’s population continues to grow.
Mark Coronado Park in the City Center is one gathering spot for Surprise residents for events like the Fourth of July fireworks celebration. The city is aching for more parks and open space, however, as the city’s population continues to grow.
[Jason Stone/Independent Newsmedia]
Surprise’s growth over the last 20 years has transformed the city. But it’s also made it become a victim of its own success.
Some cities grow fast and some outgrow themselves.
That’s what’s happening with Surprise in terms of parks and recreation space in the city — five years after it passed a Master Plan to accommodate the growth that is still expected to continue into the 2020s.
The city is already in need of park space and it’s only going to get worse, according to projections.
“It’s no surprise that we have needs in this area as we continue to grow our community,” District 5 City Councilman David Sanders said. “We have done an amazing job programming our existing amenities, but we are at maximum capacity.”
Parks and Recreation Director Donna Miller plans to give a report to the Parks and Rec Advisory Commission at a future meeting about the city’s desperate need for more park space and amenities as the city’s population slowly creeps toward 200,000.

What’s in stock

The city currently has four large parks that take up 193 acres. They are Marley Park, 15073 W. Sweetwater Ave.; Dick McComb City Park, 17894 W. Westpark Blvd.; Asante Community Park, 16763 W Vereda Solana Drive; and the 96-acre Surprise Community Park, 15953 N. Bullard Ave., the biggest one in the City Center next to the Northwest Regional Library, 16089 N. Bullard Ave.
Additionally, the city operates eight small parks that make up 47 acres total. They include Stonebrook, 14431 W. Ely Drive; Three Star, 15825 N. Jerry St.; Bicentennial, 16705 N. Nash St.; Gaines, 15837 N. Nash St.; Sierra Montana, 17680 W. Spring Lane; and Veramonte, 12741 N. 140th Ave.
For city officials, it’s just not enough.
“When the [Master Plan] was done a few years ago, it was determined that we had the lowest number of park acres per 1,000 residents in the West Valley,” said City Councilman Chris Judd, who serves District 6 in the southeast part of Surprise. “Since the study was done, we have added another 15,000 residents, but have not significantly increased our park acreage.”
The city estimates it needs 755 acres more of parks, which is more than double the 551 acres the city currently has.
That’s the equivalent of a 200 acre city park, which is bigger than the Surprise Community Park, and eight new 20- to 25-acre community parks
And the city has identified the following amenities it will  need by 2030: three skate parks, nine splash pads, 10 sand volleyball courts, 14 playgrounds, 16 restrooms, 19 basketball courts, 25 soccer/multi-use fields, 23 baseball/softball fields and 23 tennis courts.
“I personally would like to see our city find ways to fund more multi-use sports fields and another community pool,” Mr. Judd said.

Falling behind

Ms. Miller said Surprise grew quickly in the early 2000s, which increased the impact when a economic slowdown came with the recession in the later part of the decade. She said parks and recreation funding was hit hard in many cities.
Hurting municipalities even more, the state’s development impact fee statute was updated in 2012, which drastically impacted how cities can utilize impact fees to build parks, recreation centers, libraries and pools.
One of the statutes restricts libraries to no larger than 10,000 square feet, for example.
“All of the amazing things we built during the hyper-growth period of Surprise, some 15 to 20 years ago, are aging and need money to keep them in the class condition we, along with the residents, expect,” Mr. Sanders said. “We are behind in this effort, as the recession in the late 2000s pulled money away from asset replacement budgets, in order to maintain front-line critical city services.”
Another big blow came in 2016 when Surprise voters nixed a bond initiative that would have funded a new park, public safety projects and road improvements.
“There are other possible ways to acquire and pay for parks such as bonds, grants, public-private partnerships or general fund dollars,” Ms Miller said. “The city is always exploring options like these for developing new parks and recreation amenities.”

Master planned

In order to figure out the biggest park needs, the city commissioned a Parks and Recreation Master Plan in 2015.
The plan basically creates a web-like, linked system of parks with community parks spread out and open spaces that follow natural and man-made features.
Most of the new parks identified in the plan are in the northern part of the city.
It mentioned the need for “linear parks” along wash corridors, “signature path and trails” and “vehicular parkways” that provide access to natural wash corridors and the connected park network.
Ms. Miller said. part of developing the plan included a recreation and leisure trends analysis, an existing facility and program inventory and a needs assessment. Basically, it figures out what the city has and what it needs.
“These elements assist in determining what amenities the city may desire to plan for based on population growth and pending funding,” Ms. Miller said.
The city uses “benchmarking” facilities or programs with communities that are similar in size to determine the level of service it has and what it may need.
“It is also important for the city to consider level of service based on what the city is actually experiencing through its residents,” Ms. Miller said. “Each community is unique in its demographic and its demand for certain programming.”
The Master Plan includes several places city staff have identified that would give residents access to open space and natural lands.
The White Tank Mountain Regional Park Trailhead, the McMicken Dam area, wildlife corridors, Central Arizona Project, Hassayampa Nature Preserve and Bradshaw Mountains are considered opportunities. But right those those areas are either owned by somebody else or not in the City of Surprise limits.
Ms. Miller said the city could partner with the Flood Control District of Maricopa County for a potential recreation and conservation area where McMicken Dam is being upgraded along its entire length. It could provide 5,000 acres of open space for picnics with a connection to the Maricopa Trail that encircles the whole Valley.
Open space is critical for Surprise to have access to as it currently has none.
Right now, the city has zero acres of open space. Based on Maricopa Association of Governments projections, Surprise should have an estimated 557 acres for open space by this year — as well as 142 acres of developed parks, 56 more acres of private parks.
By 2030, additional acres needed will by 678 acres.

Keeping it current

One challenge the Parks and Rec Department faces is trying to keep up with growth while not neglecting current programs and facilities. After all, the city has set a goal to serve about 260,000 people in 2020, who they hope participate in more than 2,000 programs and special events this year alone.
Ms. Miller said maintaining and improving current recreation programs, events, and parks and recreation facilities remains a “top priority.”
The department has been able to reinvest in current parks thanks to the Master Plan. Some of those additions include new shade structures and lighting the remaining unlit courts at the Surprise Tennis and Racquet Center.
At Dick McComb Park, the city added turf, a skate park, ramadas, a basketball court, a splashpad, parking, playgrounds, restrooms and a dog park.
It’s part of about $1.4 million in capital improvements are in this year’s budget.
Those included field and dugout improvements at Surprise Stadium, a new slide and diving boards at the Surprise Aquatic Center, shading at the Hollyhock Pool, and field lighting and other improvements at
Bicentennial Park.
Additional improvements included “Tot Turf” at Veramonte, Asante and Sierra Montana parks and basketball court resurfacing at Sierra Montana Park. Veramonte also got a splashpad, restrooms and parking.
The city also resurfaced eight courts at the Surprise Tennis and Racquet Center.
Possible improvements in the upcoming year’s budget include more work to Surprise Stadium and the pools as well as some upgrades to the Northwest Regional Library’s floor, furniture and shelving.
“We are also at a true maturation moment for our city, as we must balance funds to maintain existing assets, while working to add new projects to keep up with growth,” Mr. Sanders said. “We are no longer the new kid on the block.”
Mr. Judd said keeping up makes business sense, too.
“Our shortage of parks leads to missed opportunities for more youth sports and makes it very difficult for club teams to operate in Surprise,” Mr. Judd said.

Check the budget

It’s now left to the budget process for City Manager Mike Frazier to devise one that balances the deep need for recreation space with other city wants.
“Before a facility can be built, it needs to find its way into the annual budget,” Mr. Judd said. “As we work through the budget process, we have to balance funding for many needs including public safety, roads, recycling, parks and everything in-between.”
Mr. Sanders agrees it’s a tough balancing act.
“Our General Fund budget is the checking account for much more than parks and recreation,” he said. “It also supports public safety, street improvements, and general government services. As a result, there are many competing priorities.”
City department managers will present their requested budgets through April with a tentative budget adopted in May. The final adoption is scheduled for June to begin July 1.
Mr. Judd said he hopes the city can figure out a way to service all its needs.
“Recreation programs and club teams provide a valuable service to the community in that they teach teamwork, sportsmanship, and help youths to become more proficient in the sports they love,” Mr. Judd said. “The time spent in recreation programs or on a club team can lead to a better sense of community belonging, an increase in quality of life and sometimes even college scholarship opportunities.”
Mr. Sanders said it’s also good for business in his district.
“In District 5 alone, the Surprise Community Park, urban fishing lake and a regional library; award-winning tennis facility and pickleball courts; Surprise Stadium, along with our partnership with Major League Baseball, have all had a major impact in attracting people, businesses and visitors to Surprise,” Mr. Sanders said.
Editor’s note: Jason Stone can be reached at 623-445-2805, on email at or on Twitter at @thestonecave. Visit