By Melanie Lekocevic
Capital Region Independent Media
GREENVILLE — For many today, it would be difficult to imagine the town of Greenville without George V. Vanderbilt Park.
But only three decades ago, the park did not exist and it was only through the hard work and dedication of a group of local residents that Greenville now has a town park.
At a joint public meeting of Community Partners of Greenville and the Greenville Local History Group on May 9, members of Community Partners — which grew out of the committee that founded the park — shared memories of how the park came to be.
“This is the 30th year that we have Vanderbilt Park as a community asset,” Barbara Walter, co-treasurer and a board member of Community Partners, said to open the discussion.
The group’s vice president, Brian Mulligan, recalled the history of how the park was created.
“Once upon a time in Greenville, there was a group of parents who realized that at the baseball fields they were using, they were getting kicked off every now and then because there was nothing that belonged to the Little League,” Mulligan said. “So some of the parents got together and they started looking for land.”
The group identified a plot of land on Route 32 in the late 1980s.
“The owner of the property that is now the park lived in Washington D.C. and this is where she grew up,” Mulligan said.
The property owner initially wanted to sell the land for around $370,000 or so, Mulligan recalled.
“Back then, and still now, that is a good chunk of change,” he said.
The group started negotiations with the landowner, who agreed to reduce the price by about $100,000 if the park would be named after her father — George V. Vanderbilt. The final price of the property was in the vicinity of $240,000, Mulligan said.
The town had some money set aside that could help fund the project.
“There was about $40,000 in the recreation fund,” Mulligan said. “Anyone who built a house in Greenville, any of the developers, they had to put some money in the recreation fund, so there was $40,000.”
The Greenville Citizens Park Committee that formed to make the town park a reality successfully pursued 501c3 status, which designates an organization as not-for-profit and tax exempt, and began fundraising. The group also tapped into a local funding resource due to the construction of the Iroquois pipeline in Greene County, Mulligan said.
“Every town it went through was entitled to a certain amount of money — I think it was $25,000,” he said. “None of the other towns were asking for the money, so we ended up getting $150,000 from the Iroquois pipeline.”
The committee also pursued other fundraising opportunities, such as establishing an Adopt-an-Acre program, which raised about $20,000, and an auction held at Vince Anna’s Restaurant.
But the proposal to purchase land and build a town park was not without its detractors.
“At that time there was opposition,” Mulligan said. “People were saying, ‘I’ve got a park in my backyard, everybody’s got a park in their backyard — we all have parks.’”
But that’s not the same thing, Mulligan said.
“It’s not something that the community owns and has some control over and can have big events, like a balloon festival or a Greenville Day,” he said.
Some argued the park would draw vandals.
“The big argument was that parks get vandalized, so it’s going to wind up costing the town a lot of money,” Mulligan said. “But the idea was that if we could get a lot of people involved in the park and building the park, it’s going to be theirs — they are going to own it, they will feel their ownership and that pride, and they will take care of it.”
Former committee member Jackie Massaro said teenagers in the community who were charged with vandalism at the park ended up having a complete change of heart.
“There was some vandalism — there were three boys from the high school who spraypainted there,” Massaro remembered. “Someone who was working for the town went to the judge and said, would you please sentence them to community service. A month later, those three boys were talking about ‘their’ town park. They took so much ownership in it — it was exactly what we wanted to see.”
Once the land was purchased in 1992 by the town using money the Greenville Citizens Park Committee had raised, the next step was to actually build a park.
The town’s first attempt at obtaining a state grant was turned down, but on the second try the committee was successful.
“The grant was written for $86,000 and the way they came up with that number was we went to a lot of construction companies in the area and asked for bids for what it would cost to build a soccer field, a baseball field and a parking lot,” Mulligan said. “We came up with the figure of $160,000 or so based on the bids that we got from those construction companies.”
But things changed once the group was awarded the grant, he said.
“We got the grant, we went back to those same companies and all of a sudden the cheapest bid that we got was for a million dollars,” he said.
So the committee pooled the human resources of the town and everyone from a local civil engineer to students picking up rocks in the open field went to work.
“There were hundreds of people involved in building the park,” he said. “I remember some of the women in the group driving bulldozers.”
The state grant was a matching grant, so the monetary value of the labor of volunteers was tallied to meet the grant requirement to match the $86,000, Mulligan said.
One of the key features of Vanderbilt Park is its nature trail, and that has a story of its own.
“We wanted a nature trail, so we went to the Huyck Preserve and asked them for their expertise — they came down and blazed a trail,” Mulligan said. “Now we have about five-and-a-half miles of nature trails, fields, woods and a thousand feet of creek.”
Thirty years later, Vanderbilt Park is regarded by some as the “crown jewel” of Greenville, Mulligan said.
Massaro said the park was a cornerstone of her children’s youth growing up in Greenville.
“My kids grew up and have gone on with their lives, but even then it was a real focal point for the kids,” Massaro said. “When they come home, one of the first things they want to do is go to the town park. Even after they’ve been away for a long time, that is one of the first places they want to go to. It really did become an important part of this community.”